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Premium pay nets city workers millions in bonuses for just doing their jobs 

Wednesday, Jan 26 2011
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The fire department's education and training premium is a good example. For years, the premium applied only to those with a degree in fire science, and comprised a biweekly payment of a specific amount. According to a 1999 report by the Board of Supervisors' budget analyst, only 8 percent of department employees were eligible, and the payment amounted to less than 1 percent of their salaries.

The same year, however, the premium was extended to those with 10 years of time in the department, putting it within reach of 70 percent of firefighters. It was simultaneously changed to the current 6 percent of a recipient's salary. As a result, its cost to the city skyrocketed.

While it accounts for a significant portion of the city's labor costs, premium pay isn't unique to San Francisco or even to the public sector. Dan Mitchell, a professor emeritus of public policy and management at UCLA, says that work-condition bonuses are common in union contracts, even with private employers. Railroad companies used to pay their technicians a premium for carrying walkie-talkies, Mitchell says, in the days when the devices were large and heavy.

Even those in management defend some premium payments, arguing that they serve a straightforward purpose. Standby pay, while perhaps unfamiliar to many who work for nongovernment employers, is a standard practice at private organizations — like hospitals — that provide public services. For such organizations, the need to ensure that doctors, cops, firefighters, or utility workers are available around the clock carries significantly higher stakes than for a restaurant or newspaper. Special pay for graveyard shifts and weekends serves the same purpose.

"You have to have it in order to be able to staff these [undesirable] shifts. People just won't do it without it," Jean Ann Seago, a former Kaiser Permanente manager who now teaches at the UCSF School of Nursing, says of the various pay premiums for night and weekend shifts. "There are places without unions I've worked. They still have [premium pay], it's just not as good. ... Hospitals are 24/7, and nurses are the ones who have to be there."

Mitchell says the important question is whether, when premiums are included in an employee's wages, the resulting salary is fair. "Regardless of what the components are," he says, "what does the total look like?"

This is the question that has bedeviled analysts of cities' pay practices, both bonuses and salaries. Some jobs have no easy point of comparison in the private sector. Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at UC Berkeley, says her research shows that public employees are actually underpaid compared to their private counterparts, though they have better benefits. But she says the comparison breaks down for some workers, such as those in public-safety jobs.

"The idea of pay is really tricky. We don't really have firemen in the private sector, so we can't do a one-on-one comparison," she says. "What is responsible pay for a firefighter? You couldn't pay me enough to work as a policeman in Oakland."


Many would probably say the same thing about Ray Jackson's job. Jackson, a large man with brown eyes and a few days' growth of beard, is a plumber employed at the same sewage-treatment facility in the Bayview where Andrew Clark works. He makes a good living — $90,000 a year in base wages, which comes to $95,000 when other forms of compensation, including premiums, are added in. That's well above San Francisco's median household income of $73,000, which is itself $12,000 above the statewide average.

Then again, Jackson's job is different from those of most people. He repairs pipes that conduct the flow of human excrement in enclosed rooms where the odors of sewage compete with those of noxious chemicals. The odor is so bad that he wears a full-face respirator that resembles the gas masks worn by biohazard responders.

Even the mask and his gloves don't always keep the germs out. Despite his efforts not to touch his face or lick his lips while on the job — condensation from the steaming sewage pipes can settle on a person's skin — Jackson has contracted both work-related pneumonia and a staph infection during his time at the Southeast plant. "Every now and then, you'll get diarrhea for no reason," he says.

On a recent weekday morning, he clambers over an iron grating that stretches above a viscous, tar-colored pit of sludge. Corroded pipes dip from the low ceiling, and the hum of conveyor belts and centrifuges — separating solid from liquid before wastewater is expelled into the bay —creates a heavy, constant din.

"I do like working here," he says, although he worries "about bringing anything home to my wife and my kids and my grandkids." When Jackson's granddaughter was born in December, he traveled straight to the hospital from work but was unable to hold her because of the risk of infecting the newborn with sewer-borne bacteria.

"It's sort of like The Time Machine," says Larry Spillane, the plant's maintenance superintendent, referring to H.G. Wells' 1895 story of a futuristic society in which a subhuman species, the Morlocks, toils beneath the ground to create a paradise blithely enjoyed by another group, the Eloi. "Sometimes we feel like we're the Morlocks, under the city keeping things ticking, so people can flush their toilets."

The debate over public employees' compensation has tended to cast its characters as either Eloi or Morlocks, as one privileged class versus another group that's being had. (By the way, Wells' fictional time traveler eventually discovers that the Morlocks are exploiting the Eloi by raising them for slaughter, like cattle.) Some think that it is government workers who are benefiting on the backs of taxpayers wounded in the recession, while others argue that criticisms of unions are an assault on the hard-working people who make a city run.

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Peter Jamison

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