Big raises for California prison guards is a bad look for Gov. Gavin Newsom | Opinion

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California’s front-line soldiers in the fight against climate change, drought, wildfire and exposure to toxic chemicals are the 4,000-some scientists who work at state agencies. But now, after working without a contract for three years, the union representing these workers has overwhelmingly voted to strike.

Meanwhile, more than 25,000 correctional officers in California have reached an agreement with the administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom for a new contract with pay raises, a one-time contribution to a retirement shelter fund and a $10,000 bonus for employees in higher-cost communities such as Folsom.

A state offer rejected by scientists last year amounted to an additional $8,260 a year based on the state’s three-year calculation (total costs divided by full-time equivalent employees). The contract for the correctional officers was 66% richer, with $13,248 more state costs annually per officer.


The California Legislature, which must approve all new state employee contracts, is sure to approve the one for the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. With the legislative session ending next Thursday, time is running out to reach a timely deal with the California Association of Professional Scientists.

So what happens if the relevant agencies and governing bodies no longer had scientists on staff who were willing to show up for work? Environmental protections throughout California would grind to a halt. And apparently that’s a risk that the administration is all too willing to take.

“We now, from my perspective, have one of the most horrific situations in all of state service,” said Jacqueline Tkac, the bargaining committee chair for the professional scientists. Her peers are “enraged by the situation” that they have been in.

“Especially with this administration,” Tkac said.

The union that got the richer contract package happens to be mostly men and gave Newsom $1.75 million to fend off a failed recall attempt in 2021 as an example of its heavyweight status. The union without a contract — the same one offered an inferior deal — is mostly women, and a minor player in campaign contributions.

Pure coincidences?

Tkac, an environmental scientist with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, has no quarrel with the correctional officers. Her union’s beef is with how the state no longer considers her profession to be on equal compensation footing as engineers.

A generation ago, the two occupations had similar pay in state government. But a board decision in 1979 had split them into separate bargaining units. Their pay began to drift apart in subsequent contracts. Numerous administrations could have prevented this, but did not. By Tkac’s calculations, the average environmental scientist now makes $87,000 a year while the average state engineer makes $121,000.

At the bargaining table, Tkac said, the state has argued that it doesn’t compare like pay for like work if the work happens in different bargaining units. If so, we don’t have one state government that can treat all its employees equitably and fairly. We have 21 state governments based on 21 different bargaining units.

Meanwhile, the pay gap between rank-and-file scientists and their managers also grew. A typical pay difference between the staff scientist and the boss used to be in the range of 15%, Tkac said. Now, it’s closer to 60%.

“We don’t see this anywhere else in state service,” she said.

Granted, a new contract for a few years cannot necessarily eliminate all pay disparities that grew over decades. But the gap would have closed a lot more if the administration would simply offer the same financial bump to the scientists that they gave to the correctional officers. Something unsavory is going on here.

Then there is the issue of overtime, where the disparities grow wider. There were 128 correctional officers who made more than $200,000 each in 2022, based on a review of officer compensation. No rank-and-file state scientist made $200,000, although six managers did.

Some initially tight state finances during the COVID crisis prompted the Legislature to freeze scientist’s pay in 2020, delaying a 5% increase per that contract. The employees got that raise and an additional 2% in 2021. Meanwhile, the pay has not increased as negotiations have gone on. And on.

Last month, the rank-and-file scientists voted on whether to authorize a strike. More than 93% voted yes. Scientists don’t have exactly the same reputation as Longshoremen or Teamsters for walking the streets with picket signs, and Tkac said she doesn’t want to strike. But the clock is ticking.

“Right now we are still at the bargaining table (to secure) a deal that appropriately values our members,” she said. “We will continue doing that until circumstances warrant declaring a strike. We are taking things day by day.”

Given how the California government holds 21 different negotiations to craft contracts to pay its state employees, some disparities are bound to happen. But it invites special treatment for units that are favored by the Legislature and governor for one reason or another.

No legislature or governor can claim to care much about combating climate change when they make the scientists charged with preserving our natural resources such perennial losers in the negotiations game. It would be a shame if it required a strike by scientists of all people, and an ensuing national embarrassment for Newsom, who just needs to restore a little economic justice within California’s bargaining units.