Commentary: No raises for California employees until budget crisis ends

If they read this newspaper and others around the state or watch the news on television, most Californians would get the impression that state government and most local jurisdictions are facing a fiscal crisis. Judging by the cuts that have been made and those proposed — including the total elimination of welfare and health insurance for poor kids, and the real possibility that payments owed to state vendors and local governments will be delayed — the crisis certainly appears real.

But even as California residents are being asked to pay higher taxes while getting by on fewer services, the state and local governments continue to dispense pay raises to their employees. This practice must stop. Not because public employees are to blame for the crisis or have done anything wrong, but because the government cannot afford it.

The majority of these raises come in the form of so-called step increases, which are such an ingrained part of the pay system that they go all but unreported. They work like this: State job classifications are divided into steps, usually five steps per classification. Most workers are hired at the lowest step, and each year, if they perform satisfactorily, they move to the next higher step. The next step usually comes with a 5 percent raise.

According to the Department of Personnel Administration, 58 percent of state workers are at the top step in their position and won't get a step increase this year. But that leaves 42 percent of workers – more than 100,000 employees – who are due to receive pay increases this year. These increases are supposed to be based on merit, but they are hardly ever denied.

The state government is not alone. Despite its $180 million deficit, Sacramento County is obligated to hand out $20 million in step increases this year as well. That's on top of the 2.9 percent cost-of-living adjustments each of the county's 14,000 or so unionized workers is slated to receive if current contracts remain in place.

There's more. Most unionized local employees also receive what are known as "equity increases." At contract time, the county surveys other jurisdictions to determine what they are paying and then gives employees extra raises intended to keep them in the middle of the salary ranges for comparable agencies.

So far, under contract concessions negotiated between the county and the deputy sheriff's union, only the deputies have offered to give up their step and equity raises. But they would still keep their 2.9 percent cost-of-living increases.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Sacramento Bee.