The State Worker

Jerry Brown administration defends withholding per diem increase from scientists

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has filed its rebuttal to a lawsuit aimed at forcing the government to reimburse state scientists for work-related travel and meal costs at the same rate as other state workers.

Documents filed in Sacramento Superior Court this week attempt to discredit a decision by arbitrator Catherine Harris that the scientists should receive the same per diem increases negotiated by other state employees. Brown has refused to give employees in the California Association of Professional Scientists higher reimbursement rates than other unions negotiated for their members last year because the scientists are still working under the terms of their expired contract and its lower per diem provisions.

Department of Human Resources attorneys Joan Markoff and Frolan Aguiling say in their filings that Harris “exceeded her powers and violated public policy” by incorrectly applying narrow protections in the scientists’ expired contract to per diem. The arbitrator’s ruling also undermined the Legislature, Markoff and Aguling wrote, because lawmakers didn’t review the higher rates as part of a contract and didn’t appropriate money to pay more for lodging and meals to scientists.

The difference in the rates is relatively little. The per diem breakfast rate increased from $6 to $7, the lunch rate went from $10 to $11. Dinner per diem increased $5 to $23 for qualifying meals. State lodging reimbursements formerly ranged from $84 to $140 per night, depending on location. The new contracts reset the range at $90 to $150.

But hotels that do state business have reset their rates, said Chris Voight, the scientists union’s executive director, which means his members have to pay out of pocket for the same accommodations afforded other employees.

Generally speaking, the terms of state labor contracts remain in effect until the parties negotiate a new deal. The union rank and file recently rejected a contract proposal that included a modest pay increase. The vote underscores discontent with the relatively low pay they receive.

On Thursday Voight blasted the administration for “nickel and diming state scientists who are doing the state’s business,” and said that the policy was an attempt to pressure them to accept a contract.

“They told us if we want those (new) rates we had to agree to the package,” Voight said.

Human Resources spokeswoman Pat McConahay declined to comment, saying the administration doesn’t talk about litigation or contract talks.

Respondent's Answer to Unverified Petition to Confirm Arbitration Award by Jon Ortiz

Respondent's Cross-Petition to Vacate by Jon Ortiz