The State Worker

California state scientists’ tentative contract contains 15 percent in raises

A senior environmental scientist and water resource engineers with the State Water Resources Control Board inspect the property of marijuana growers near Willow Creek in Mendocino County, Calif.
A senior environmental scientist and water resource engineers with the State Water Resources Control Board inspect the property of marijuana growers near Willow Creek in Mendocino County, Calif. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The Brown administration and the union representing state scientists have reached a tentative contract that includes a 15 percent salary increase over three years and a new requirement that scientists begin contributing toward their retiree health benefits.

The agreement, which must still be approved by the Legislature and ratified by members, raises their pay by 5 percent on July 1, 2016 and then twice more on the same date in 2017 and 2018.

The agreement between Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Association of Professional Scientists marks a distinct improvement over the union’s contracts for the past 15 years. Scientists’ wages during that time haven’t kept up with inflation and lag salaries earned for similar work by counterparts in the private sector and local government – and even some parts of state government – by 30 percent or more. State scientists’ pay averaged $63,373, according to state payroll records.

Some members became so infuriated by the disparities that they recently rallied in front of the state’s human resources headquarters. Others, fed up with the low wages, have left for better pay.

“This tentative agreement would be a start and would provide some monetary relief for state scientists,” said CAPS Vice President and Bargaining Chair Patty Velez in a statement issued late Friday. “But it still falls well short of closing the huge salary gap between scientists and their engineering counterparts at the state, as well as scientists at the local level and in the private sector.”

Meanwhile, the 3,000 or so scientists covered by the contract will begin paying into a pension-style fund to offset retiree health care costs. The contributions, which the state will match, start at 0.7 percent of salary on July 1, 2017. A year later, the contribution increases another 0.7 percent and then another 1.4 percent when the contract expires on July 1, 2018.

For employees hired next year and thereafter, the agreement requires 25 years of service to become fully vested in the retiree health care program, up from 20 years for current workers. And the amount the plan would pay for those employees in retirement would be reduced from 100 percent for primary beneficiaries and 90 percent for spouses and other dependents to 80 percent for both.

The changes to retiree benefits and requiring employee contributions for them are high on Brown’s agenda as his administration bargains with the unions. The state faces a $71 billion long-term obligation for retiree medical costs and, unlike pensions, it has set aside virtually nothing for those expenses.

The scientists are the second state union to come to labor terms this week. Others representing craft and maintenance employees and correctional officers were continuing to negotiate on Friday while their members work under terms of expired contracts.

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