The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

May 9, 2012
State worker responds to reader's definition of furlough fairness

State worker Tamara Martfeld sent the following email in response to last Friday's post, "Reader of State Worker furlough column defines 'fair.' " We're posting the email unedited and with her permission. Marfield is speaking for herself, not her employer, coworkers or anyone else:

I wonder if Ms. Clark has considered the possibility that the actions against state workers may have caused or directly contributed to her company's downfall? She did not mention the kind of company she has or her location, however, in Sacramento the government workers of various government levels have significant impact on Sacramento businesses.

I have noticed for years that even a threat to the paychecks and jobs of state workers affect the economy. A threat of layoffs made in August will have the retailers complaining about low Christmas sales in California. In general, state workers pull back on spending as soon as the threats are made. Because the workforce is large, as it needs to be for a big state, the effects are large. Remember, California has fewer state workers per capita than most, if not all, other states. I strongly believe that one of the main reasons California is behind the rest of the nation in recovering from the recession is that the state workers are still not receiving the net income they had prior to furloughs and are still recovering financially from the devastation the furloughs caused to personal finances.

The threats of layoffs and furloughs for state workers came long before 2008. Threats began in 2003 when Schwarzenegger was elected and intensified with his re-election in 2006. Remember in 2003 State workers had another period of 5% cut in pay in exchange for a floating day off. Don't even begin to think that this did not affect California's economy. I know that I cut 100% of non-essential spending in 2003 and have not yet started spending again. I won't be spending again until I have at least 1 year's salary in the bank as well as 100% of all bills, including my mortgage, paid off. Even my clothing is being repaired instead of replaced. My current net pay, which will not go up to the amount I was receiving prior to furloughs until July, barely covers the conservative mortgage on a house in a low-income area and the regular monthly bills everyone pays. Schwarzenegger's actions resulted in the depletion of my emergency funds. I was lucky. Some co-workers lost EVERYTHING - this is NOT just a private industry problem. It is unfortunate that Ms. Clark is in this situation, but blaming the state workers, many who just went through this SAME THING, is irresponsible. At least her workers were able to wait until 2008 to take cuts instead of having to take them in 2003! She should note that state workers also did not strike, even after their contract was broken. Also, if she is making 60% less than she was prior to 2008 and still able to make ends meet at home, she was making over twice what I have ever made. Where did this extra money go?

Contrary to public belief, the state workers, like the private industry workers, have taken a job based on the pay and benefits which are acceptable to them. Many state workers have college degrees. However, like most private industry workers, state workers DO NOT MAKE THE DECISIONS. They have no more say in the decisions made by the governor and legislature than the private worker. They also work their tails off! In my 30 years with the state I have seen/heard about from co-workers less than 5 people who should have been fired for not doing their job. Based on conversations with friends who are private industry, county government, city government, and federal government, this happens everywhere.

As for Ms. Clark's friend stating that his "government-employed clients since 2008 have made on an average $10,000 - $20,000 more a year in pay", I can state that those clients are NOT your average state worker. If they work for the state they might be at an executive level, but are more likely appointed or associated with either the legislature or college system. The average state worker has not seen that kind of increase. As a matter of fact, every "pay raise" in my memory (at least since 1995) has been countered with an increase in the co-pays for dental, medical, retirement, etc., and has on occasion resulted in a cut in net income after deductions. In some instances at very high levels, an increase of $10,000 - $20,000 more a year in pay could be the reinstatement of a salary after furloughs ended, but still not an increase in pay. Anyone at this level would likely be in a job requiring a PhD.

The staff in my unit is 2/3 of what it was in 2000 and the workload has increased. My co-workers and myself, as well as the management, have "dug their heels in and did what had to be done" to serve our customers. Many in my office do not take breaks except enough time to eat lunch (20 minutes) in order to get the work done and serve the customers (I have seen this in every department I have worked when work exceeds the time available to get it done). Cuts are made, just not publicized. As for cutting pay, many workers are already making less than their private industry counterparts and have been for decades. The lower pay was accepted in exchange for the job stability and benefits which have been reduced or no longer exist. I believe that only a fool would look to the state for a career at this point in time.

As for the furlough payouts being fair, yes they are. A contract was violated and this is the remedy. I am among those thrown under the bus by the union and will not be getting back pay. This whole mess, especially the part of the contract being broken without any remedy, will severely hurt the recruitment of intelligent permanent employees to work for the state in the future. State work will be a stepping stone for the intelligent if they cannot get a private industry job immediately after entering the workforce. The constant hiring and training of new employees will be expensive and will cost the taxpayers. As for those who say "contract out", all I can say is that I have spent whole days doing nothing but logging in and out of a consultant-designed computer system trying to get in long enough to get critical work done. That system is a year-and-a-half old and still does not work well. This is the rule, not the exception for the contracted work I have seen over the last 30 years, and the contractors are generally paid 2-3 time what a state worker would have made for the same task. I do not see this kind of incompetence in the work coming from state workers. Yes, you can find exceptions in both instances. I am referring to what is normal, not the exception or incorrect perception.

I agree this state is broke. However, state workers are not the problem. Every time there is a bond issue the voters pass it, even when there is no mention of a funding source to pay off the bond. Every time there is a program that "would be nice to have", or even "needed" on some level, voters pass it without any view to how it will be funded, and then complain when staff is hired to administer the program. Every time there is a bond or tax increase requested "for the schools", "for the kids", "for our disabled", the voters pass it. However, voters keep voting in the legislative representative who take this money and use it for purposes other that for what it was collected. Money is never there for the issues that pull on people's heartstrings, but it is always there for the special projects and programs that the legislative "representatives" want. A good recent example is the Dream Act. Regardless of whether you agree whether this act should have been passed, the reality is that money has been found to fund 5 additional positions (per January budget proposal) and provide an education to citizens of other countries living in the United States illegally, but we "don't have the money" and "must raise taxes" to fund the education of our own citizens. This priority is wrong. The legislature should serve the citizens first, not last.

The state is broke. The decision makers are the Legislature and Governor, NOT the state worker. Blaming the state worker for the problem is like blaming the register clerk at McDonalds for the high cost of the food and the taxes one must pay on that food. If you don't like how the legislature and governor are doing their job, contact them. Contact your "representatives" and hold them accountable to YOU, the CITIZEN they are supposed to be representing. VOTE! If you are a citizen of voting age and are not barred from voting for some reason and you do not vote, you are part of the problem.

People have been blaming the state employees for years, and Schwarzenegger fueled the blame by spewing false information, using invalid "statistics", and pitting public employees against private employees. The fact is that ALL employees are in the same boat, but neither side recognizes it as a whole. It would be wonderful if all employees can work together against the elected "representatives" and get them to start serving the citizens who elected them.

Sincerely,

Tamara Martfeld

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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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