The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

August 3, 2011
California officials seek higher rates for meal reimbursements

UPDATED at 2:30 p.m. to include comments from DPA

The chief executives of CalPERS and CalSTRS along with Controller John Chiang and Treasurer Bill Lockyer are asking the Brown administration to overhaul the state's travel meal reimbursement rates to help accommodate for trips to expensive locales.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Department of Personnel Administration Director Ronald Yank, four officials -- Chiang, Lockyer, Anne Stausboll of CalPERS and Jack Ehnes of CalSTRS -- requested that DPA "consider conforming" the state rates with federal rates because the pension systems have grown concerned that its employees are bearing significant out-of-pocket business costs.

The state's current reimbursement rates came into question earlier this year after Chiang sponsored legislation that would bar the pension systems' board members and officials from accepting gifts totaling more than $50 from a single contractor in one year. Chiang expressed concerns with meal tabs being "picked up by those seeking multimillion dollar deals" with the systems.

The state's meal and incidentals rates allow state workers to reclaim a maximum of up to $6 for breakfast, $11 for lunch and $18 for dinner. Though the same rates apply, rank-and-file employees technically negotiate them through union collective bargaining agreements.

Federal rates, which are set by the General Services Administration, range from $7 for breakfast to $36 for dinner, depending on the location of the meal.

"Rates are something worth looking at because while travel needs to be limited, they must be reasonably set to accommodate those doing the traveling," said Chiang spokesman Jacob Roper.

Department spokesman Lynelle Jolley said Yank is happy to meet with the officials as well as staff at the Department of Finance to discuss the proposal. She said that while Yank is sympathetic about the issue, consideration must be given to whether the state can afford rate changes at this time.

The officials wrote in their letter that the governor's travel restriction policy has "significantly reduced" their out-of-state travel spending, but they still send a limited number of staff members on frequent, long and last-minute trips.

The letter suggested that any increased costs be absorbed by existing department budgets.

"This will relieve staff of having to pay for legitimate business travel out of their own pockets," the officials wrote, "but in a manner which imposes a higher degree of fiscal discipline on the state departments and agencies which require and authorize the travel."

CalPERS board member J.J. Jelincic said that the state's rates force the pension fund's employees to either accept meals as gifts or pay hundreds of dollars out-of-pocket on some trips.

"If we ask staff to go do due diligence, we have to be willing to pay the freight," he said Wednesday. "Either they are going to pay reasonable reimbursement rates or due diligence will suffer."

Jelincic said in May that the state's rate "don't cut it in Manhattan, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco, to list just a few examples."

The personnel department's initial position, according to Jelincic, has been to support exploring changing the system for rank-and-file employees. But changing the rates for managers, who are not covered by collective bargaining, isn't supported because the department considers their regular pay to be high enough to bear the extra costs.

Letter to Ron Yank

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at jortiz@sacbee.com.

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