For California state workers, stagnant wages erode stability of civil service jobs

·5 min read

No one enters California civil service expecting to get rich. But some state workers say their stagnant wages fail to cover basic living expenses, let alone provide the sense of security and financial stability that many seek from a job in state government.

“It’s so embarrassing to put myself in the Salvation Army to get a box of food, you know?” said Norma Murillo, a staff services analyst for the Department of Justice in San Diego. “Because, I work for the state.”

Murillo, 42, who’s worked for various state agencies since 2018, says she takes home $2,856 a month. As a former Marine, she pays $1,200 a month in subsidized rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the North Park neighborhood. Utilities, gasoline and healthcare expenses eat up the rest of her monthly paycheck, and the divorced single mother says she can barely afford food for herself and her three teenage children who visit every other week.

Still, Murillo feels guilty about collecting free groceries from food banks.

“I’m seeing people that are in situations where they don’t have a job, or they’re on Social Security or disability,” she said. “I’m not supposed to be taking their food.”

Murillo’s union, Service Employees International Union Local 1000, has repeatedly called for raises. As the largest public employee union in state government, the group represents about 100,000 workers ranging from prison librarians to engineering technicians and janitorial staff.

Local 1000 workers recently staged a rally at the Capitol to energize support as they enter contract bargaining. A recent study commissioned by the union and conducted by the UC Berkeley Labor Center showed many members were struggling financially, particularly women, Black and Latino employees.

“We have been left behind,” said Local 1000 Board Chair Bill Hall. “How does this sit with the political values of our governor and elected legislature?”

The study found that nearly 70% of the union’s members fail to earn a wage high enough to support themselves and at least one child.

Based on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator for California, a single adult needs at least $21.24 an hour to be considered “self sufficient.” A family with one working adult and one child must earn $43.44 an hour, and a family with two working adults and two children would need each parent to make at least $30.06.

Waning financial security in state service

When Manuel Hurtado graduated from UC Santa Barbara last June with a degree in geography, he knew he wanted to work in public service and give back to his community. He applied to various city-level jobs, and as a longshot, filled out an application for a data strategy job with California’s Department of Housing and Community Development.

He couldn’t imagine the state would hire him fresh out of college – but they did.

“It was kinda lofty,” said Hurtado, 22. “I did not think I was going to get it.”

The Pomona native enjoys his work and gets along well with colleagues. But the pay, he said, doesn’t go nearly as far as he thought it would due to inflation. He takes home about $2,800 a month, but half of that pays for rent, and the other half disappears quickly on groceries, utilities, gasoline and car maintenance.

“Financial anxiety is really the worst type of anxiety, because to some extent, it’s not treatable,” Hurtado said. “You can’t really therapy your way out of financial stress.”

Every trip to the grocery store reawakens the dread. At the check-out line, Hurtado watches the bill tick higher and higher with each item scanned. His heartbeat quickens as he reaches for his phone to open his banking app. He’d already passed on the chicken breast because it was too expensive. He says a little prayer that he won’t have to endure the embarrassment of putting anything back on the shelf.

“You’re having to choose between two staples that, just a few years ago, you were just able to easily get without really a second thought,” he said. “It’s defeating.”

Like Hurtado, Murillo said she never thought she would work for the state. She left the military in 2006 and focused on raising her three young children while also going to school on a G.I. scholarship. But alcohol abuse, and a divorce left her homeless and sleeping in her car.

“Life was not working for me,” she said, “and it was just really, really stressful.”

Finding work with the state of California helped change her life, she said. One day in 2017, through the Wounded Warriors project, Murillo found San Diego County’s Back 2 Work program and started working temporarily with Caltrans to clean up litter on the state’s freeways. Since then, she has worked entry-level jobs for agencies like Caltrans and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“The thing that keeps me going is just having a place to go to work, because work is a source of income,” Murrillo said. “Work is food. Work is a roof over my head.”

Even though she works for the state, she still finds herself struggling to afford basics, such as groceries and clothes appropriate for office work.

A 2021 CalHR compensation survey found that staff service analysts like Murillo earned wages that averaged 33.5% below market rate. When accounting for total compensation, they were still underpaid by 17.2%.

“If my landlord raises the rent, I’m homeless — again. No stability,” Murillo said. “I don’t have money to save. Give me some money to save so I can at least, I don’t know, maybe get a place that I can live in case this one doesn’t work out.”

The next paycheck preoccupies Hurtado too. When the calendar flips to the 15th of the month, he gives himself a pep talk. Next month is almost here. We’re halfway through. We’re halfway through.

“It’s one thing to be financially prudent, of course. That’s a skill,” he said. “But it’s a little dehumanizing to just constantly be that on-edge.”

The only solution, Hurtado pointed out, is getting paid more.

“We went into state service knowing that we weren’t going to be receiving the most lucrative salaries, the most lucrative bonuses,” Hurtado said. “But we did it for stability.”

“That big selling point of the state, its stability, is waning.”