Oblivious journos still ignore public employee step raises

June 5, 2013

By Chris Reed

media_fail_logo_5.24.105One of the worst failings of journalists who cover California government is their failure when writing about budgets to always mention the automatic “step” raises that many public employees get each year, including most teachers, just for accumulating time on the job. These auto raises explain why government agencies depict any reduction in proposed spending increases as “cuts.” But they don’t explain why reporters do so.

In failing to offer this context, journalists let down their readers in many other ways as well. “Step” increases explain why pensions get so high and why so few public employees leave their jobs compared to those in the private sector. They also help explain why the productivity revolution never arrived in the public sector. The government status quo may be inefficient, but if it means there are lots of jobs where few people get fired and many/most people get automatic raises, then there is a huge constituency to keep it inefficient.

A reporter who provides context: It can be done

Which brings us to two very different recent stories in the California media.

Here’s what a sharp journalist sounds like when talking about how public employee pay works in California. It’s Will Carless of the Voice of San Diego in an Q&A with Bernie Rhinerson, a top San Diego Unified official:

“… three years ago, the board decided to hand out a whole slew of raises.

“Collective bargaining is give-and-take, and concessions.

“At that point in time, teachers gave up five days of paid work; they gave up almost 3 percent of their salary to get a promise of raises in the future. They got the kids through another year without big layoffs.

“And our teachers hadn’t had a raise in years.

“They had a raise in 2008, two years earlier.

“Well, that was before I came.

“They had had a raise, though.

“Well, that was five years ago now. Have you had a raise in five years?

“Sure, but now you’re repeating another canard. Most teachers in the district get raises every single year, just for staying alive. My wife does. Yes, I’ve had a raise, maybe one a year, but so have most teachers. As a communications person, don’t you think that we should start to be a bit more frank about terms like that? Why is an across-the-board raise any different (from) a step-and-column raise? They’re both raises.

“I’m not going to argue about the system in California.”

A reporter who is clueless: California’s sad norm

This sort of context should be required. Unfortunately, even in 2013, this sort of coverage of from the Los Angeles Daily News’ Christina Villacorte is still the norm:

LA-County-Seal“Los Angeles County employees, who are demanding pay raises after five years of going without, could see as much as $285 million in additional salaries and benefits in the coming fiscal year.

“The county is still negotiating with its various labor unions, but it provided that estimate to Moody’s Investors Service during an evaluation of its creditworthiness.

“County’s spokesman David Sommers emphasized that pay raises are a possibility — not a given.

“‘There are a number of proposals floating around about different scenarios of what salary and cost-of-living increases could look like,’ Sommers said. ‘That’s just one possible computation.’

“Sommers said the county provided that estimate because ‘the potential of salary increases — whether they happen or not — are things which rating agencies take into account when thinking about what’s next for us financially.'”

Don’t blame journalistic lapses on newspaper downsizing. It’s incompetence.

Note that Sommers apparently didn’t bother to tell Villacorte that, yes, lots of L.A. County employees got annual step raises, whether or not supervisors increased the broad pay scale of county employees in general after collective bargaining.

But why should he? Shouldn’t the Daily News reporter know this?

Of course.

But don’t blame this on the loss of “institutional knowledge” that resulted from the gutting of newspaper staffs over the past decade. I’ve lived in California since 1990. Even the Los Angeles Times at its bloated biggest — from, say, 1995 to 2003 — never routinely mentioned “step” pay hikes in writing about the state budget.

Why? Who knows? But it’s a black eye for California journalism whatever the reason.


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  1. S Moderation Douglas
    S Moderation Douglas 5 June, 2013, 07:54

    …..”automatic step raises that “many” public employees get each year, including “most teachers”……?

    As a non-oblivious “journo”, could you be more specific? How “many” teachers and other employees get yearly step raises?
    (and how much?)

    In almost 40 years with CalTrans, the only step raises I heard of were during a probationary period at the beginning of any position.  When first hired, I started at the bottom “step”.  After one year, assuming satisfactory job performance, I advanced 5% to th next step, and another 5% a year later. That’s it. I promoted twice early in my career, with similar step raises for each position.  The final position, I held for thirty years with no “steps” after the first two. The only subsequent raises I received were raises negotiated in the contracts. (which were non existent in the last six years I worked.)

    I am aware that some of my peers working for city or county governments had a similar system, with additional “longevity” increases after five years and again at ten years at the top step for their position. Typically these were 2 1/2% raises, so an experienced worker would earn 5% more than one with only a few years. 

    Regardless, in “normal” budget and inflationary circumstances, each of these “steps” would be increased periodically by negotiated contracts, which hasn’t happened recently for most government workers. 

    I only recently learned of the “step and column” pay plan typical of teachers and don’t know to how many other government workers it applies. Perhaps the reason many journalists fail to offer this “context” of step raises is that it is irrelevant. 
    “Why is an across-the-board raise any different (from) a step-and-column raise?”

    Because an across the board raise is negotiated to adjust for inflation and other market conditions. Step and column defines a base, and with negotiated raises, each step is increased equally to  account for the continually increased cost of living. 

    In other words, this is a misleading non-story. It implies widespread lucrative annual increases. Unless you can document otherwise, it is my understanding that these “steps” are typically about one percent per year (or less), and apply to very few employees other than (most?) teachers. 

    Reply this comment
  2. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 5 June, 2013, 10:13

    If anyone has experience with journalistic incompetence, it most certainly would be someone on the editorial staff of both the OC Register and the U-T. Congratulations, Chris! I guess you’ll just never understand why employees become more valuable over time and that fact is reflected in step increases.

    Reply this comment
  3. Chris Reed
    Chris Reed 5 June, 2013, 10:23

    Teachers in California typically get automatic raises for 15 of their first 20 years on the job, Douglas.

    Skipping Dog, congrats on your unrelenting trolling. I look forward to your first surprising comment.

    Reply this comment
  4. S Moderation Douglas
    S Moderation Douglas 5 June, 2013, 14:13

    I understand that, Chris. My question is, How “many” is the “many state employees” who get this kind of step raise, other than teachers.

    And my comment was, the step raises, as SkippingDog implied, is there for a reason. Absent inflation, the existing step raises reward experience and help to retain qualified employees.

    COLA,s, on the other hand, are negotiated to compensate for inflation and other market forces. Not the same thing.

    Part of Meg Whitman’s mantra was to “end automatic annual raises” for government employees. These step increases are NOT common to ALL government employees, and should not be confused with automatic COLAs in some (private sector)union contracts. (No government union I am aware of has automatic Cost of Living increases.)

    Reply this comment
  5. Ulysses Uhaul
    Ulysses Uhaul 5 June, 2013, 15:34

    Getting a raise is ok…..you doomers get them when liberals raise the minimum wage…..be thankful government looks out for you. No one else cares about you!

    Reply this comment
  6. Richard Rider
    Richard Rider 5 June, 2013, 16:47

    IF the weak government employees were weeded out, then MAYBE such automatic pay increases would make sense. But government employees are seldom fired after two years on the job. Teachers are almost IMPOSSIBLE to fire after two years except for criminal activity.

    There is zero ECONOMIC incentive for such DE FACTO tenured government workers to excel in their work — only personal pride keeps some performing at a high standard. But all get the raises, simply for showing up.

    Ask any good teacher about this, and they will tell you the horror stories of how a few incompetent but protected teachers can drag down an entire school. I speak from experience — having had dozens to teachers as clients, and my wife was a career public high school (mentor) teacher.

    Reply this comment
  7. Donkey
    Donkey 5 June, 2013, 18:45

    We need to cut the pay, perks, pensions, and benefits of all the RAGWUS members, and do away with the corruption they have built into their crooked system. A complete demolition and then overhaul of the public employee system is overdue!! 🙂

    Reply this comment
  8. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 5 June, 2013, 23:01

    Thanks Chris. I open the U-T every day and hope you’ll actually write something sensible on behalf of Papa Doug. The closest you’ve come was the recent endorsement of Lorena Gonzalez, but that was a cheap endorsement from you since she was running against another Democrat in a solid Blue district.

    BTW, did you write that one or did you farm it out to an intern?

    Reply this comment
  9. SkippingDog
    SkippingDog 5 June, 2013, 23:02

    Always nice to see Rider show up to bite the hand that has fed him and his wife throughout his adult years. Ready to give up that Navy retirement check you scammed yet, Richard?

    Reply this comment
  10. Richard Rider
    Richard Rider 7 June, 2013, 00:03

    Ah yes, Running Dog again denigrates military pensions. Janitors at the waterworks are getting $60,000 pensions, while career military Navy Captains and Army Colonels get $30,000 — and Skippy slams military folks for their “scammed” pensions.

    BTW, my pension as a Navy RESERVE Commander with 26 years (4 years active) is about $1,200. Skippy makes several times that pension for doing — what? — public employee union boss activity? Posting endless tripe in comment sections? That’s my guess.

    Always good to hear from the master scammer. I LOVE it when he belittles those who serve in uniform.

    Well, at least he’s posting for a good cause — incompetent, lazy, nonperforming labor union workers in safe jobs who never get deployed — who get pay increases just for showing up — and are never fired for anything less than criminal activity.

    Reply this comment
  11. pauldsu
    pauldsu 21 June, 2013, 23:09

    I work for a company in Mountain View for 7 year and never get a raise………is that illegal?

    Reply this comment

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