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How Has Pay For County Workers Changed During Recession?


How has the county's payroll changed during the recession? Which department has the highest percentage of six-figure salaries? KPBS Reporter Kyla Calvert provides us with analysis of the Watchdog Institute's investigation into the County of San Diego's payroll.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A report on salaries of people who work for the County of San Diego reveals that as new hires decrease, the number of workers earning higher salaries has increased. County officials say that's just a normal consequence of recession cutbacks. Critics claim some county workers are being paid too much. Joining us to break down the results of an investigation by reporters at the Watchdog Institute is my guest, KPBS reporter Kyla Calvert. Good morning, Kyla.

KYLA CALVERT (Reporter, KPBS): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: Now, remind us, first of all, about the Watchdog Institute. What is it exactly?

CALVERT: The Watchdog Institute is an independent investigative journalism nonprofit. They’re based at SDSU. And I think they’ve been around for about a year, maybe a little bit more now. And they do basically a lot of data work. They request databases like this and then break down the analysis, you know, analyze it and then push that analysis out to news organizations like KPBS and the U-T and…

CAVANAUGH: And so this report traces the recession’s impact on the county workforce. How has the number of county employees changed since 2007?

CALVERT: In 2007, just over 19,000 people or so were working at the county. And at the end of – through 2009 the county employed a little bit over eighteen and a half thousand. Now in between – In 2008, because, you know, the brunt of the recession hadn’t really hit then, the numbers increased to over 20,000. So, you know, the actual decrease is a little bit more than it seems to have been over the entire three-year period. So…

CAVANAUGH: I understand. People didn’t realize how bad things were going to get. So how did the county actually reduce that number of employees? Was it through layoffs primarily? Or a hiring freeze?

CALVERT: Well, it seems that a lot of those positions were either vacant or became vacant and they were not filled. The county, I guess – you know, I saw in the U-T that they requested a number – from the county, a count of how many layoffs have happened and they haven’t received that information yet. But, you know, reports over the past couple of years have said that the reduction in staff is due mostly to not filling vacant positions.

CAVANAUGH: So there must be a lot of vacant positions in the county.

CALVERT: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: What are the biggest departments in the county? Can you give us an idea of how many employees work in those departments and how big their annual budgets are?

CALVERT: Sure. By far, the largest department is the Health and Human Services Agency. And in 2009, they employed about 5800 people and had a total payroll budget of just over $275 million. And then the other largest departments are the sheriff’s department, the district attorney and the probation department. The sheriff employs about – or in 2009, employed about 4000 people and the district attorney has about 1000 employees and the probation department about 1300.

CAVANAUGH: And in relation to that, which departments have seen the biggest cuts since this survey began in 2007.

CALVERT: Well, you know, some of the departments that saw the biggest cuts were departments that had only – or percentage-wise had only maybe 12 workers or something like that. So of the larger departments, it seems like the one with the largest decrease is the Assessor/Recorder/County Clerk and they saw their payroll budget drop by almost 10% between 2007 and 2009. And they’ve – in 2009, they had about 425 employees. So…

CAVANAUGH: So the headline that’s come out of this report from the Watchdog Institute is that the number of six-figure salaries has grown at the county even as we’ve gone through recession and the number of employees has decreased. Which department has the highest number of six-figure salaries?

CALVERT: Well, the district attorney employs the most people who are making, you know, over $100,000. In 2009, it was two hundred and forty – or eighty-four people in that department were making salaries over $100,000.

CAVANAUGH: And what does the county – the county district attorney’s office say about that increase? Because, as I say, that sort of figure has dominated the headlines. You know, people – fewer people but more people making incomes or rather salaries of over $100,000.

CALVERT: Sure. You know, that department saw the number of people making those salaries increase by 47 between 2007 and 2009, so they also had sort of the highest percentage – or increase of those kinds of employees. And, basically, if you look at those individuals you see that many of them were making maybe $75,000 in 2007 and because of sort of the pay increases laid out in the agreement between the county and the Attorney’s Association, their salaries have increased to just over $100,000 because of the sort of pay schedule that they’re on under those employment agreements basically.

CAVANAUGH: And so from what I said in the very beginning in the introduction, the idea that as new hires increase, the number of workers who have been working at the county, we’re talking with a more veteran worker population, their salaries and aggregate are going to increase. Is that the kind of thing that the county officials say is resulting in the figures that we’re seeing, that the Watchdog Institute is putting out?

CALVERT: Well, I think that, I mean, if you look at sort of the amount of time county employees have been with the county, the entire payroll, I think, when I looked at the numbers a little bit, the figure was – maybe they had been there about – between 9 and 11 years, depending on whether you look at the average or the median or whatever. And then if you look at those people in the district attorney’s office making the $100,000 salaries, they’ve been there about 17 years. And so if you’re not sort of filling your department with new people at the lower salary ranges, the average is going to increase. So…

CAVANAUGH: And I know that – I said salaries instead of incomes because on the other hand, a lot of people used to make a lot of money in overtime and special pay have been cut back drastically. Tell us a little bit about that.

CALVERT: Well, between 2007 and 2009 the county’s total payroll costs increased by, you know, just over half of a percent which for a, you know, a payroll of 18,000 people is basically no cost change, even as base salaries did increase. And what you see is that there was a big drop in the amount of overtime pay and special pay and especially in departments like the sheriff’s department where people were making a significant amount of overtime pay in some cases. And so if you look at the total number of people who were taking home over $100,000, that number actually dropped by about 100 people between 2007 and 2009 once you account for overtime and special pay.

CAVANAUGH: And we don’t want to leave the impression that the DA’s office is the only place where people are getting pay raises or where individuals are – have had their pay increased to $100,000. There have been other specialty positions such as psychiatrists and…

CALVERT: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …people who work at as doctors for the county, is that right?

CALVERT: Right. You know, I actually spoke with one person who works shifts in the emergency psychiatric unit and, you know, is earning over $100,000 from the county. Another person that I tried to get in touch with actually works the – some overnight shifts in the emergency psychiatric unit and, you know, I think that those are just tough positions to fill, especially when you consider how much a psychiatrist can make in the private sector.

CAVANAUGH: How does the county set its salaries?

CALVERT: Basically, you know, as I mentioned before, there are these formal agreements that are reached between the county’s human resources department and organizations representing the various classes of worker, so they negotiate something called a memorandum of agreement and it covers – the one I was looking at for the deputy district attorneys, for example, covered, I think, like October of 2006 through June of 2009 so – and those sort of – those agreements lay out the salary ranges for each position and the schedule for step increases in those salaries.

CAVANAUGH: Now some people – every time county workers’ salaries are in the news or if there’s some sort of list of what people make, there is always – seems to be an outcry from people that they’re critical of how much people are making in the county. First of all, some might argue that the pay increases in the district attorney’s office or in that – in those very valuable offices, as you were talking about, those very hard jobs of being an on-call psychiatrist for the county mental health, that, you know, if we have to pay people a certain amount of salary so that we’ll be able to retain good workers for the County of San Diego, have you heard that argument being made?

CALVERT: Oh, sure. Definitely, and, you know, the just – especially when it comes to something like law, government is a – it’s a complicated bureaucracy to a certain extent and I think having people that understand the system is important to departments like the district attorney’s department or the county psychiatric hospital and…

CAVANAUGH: And – but some critics argue, as you know, that the public salary should always be lower than the private sector no matter, really, how far down the private sector salaries go. Talk to us about the negative reactions to this report.

CALVERT: Well, I spoke with Richard Rider, who’s the president of the San Diego Tax Fighters, and he was saying that, you know, in the past government jobs were supposed to be sort of lower wages, you know, decent benefits but what he called rock solid job security, and that his argument was that now you still have the rock solid job security, you still have generous benefits and, in fact, you know, far more generous than what people in the private sector are sometimes being offered and salaries are increasing. So they’ve – His argument is they’ve become these sort of very – very coveted positions and, you know, he pointed out that there’s not a lot of loss. There’s not a lot of people who quit once they’re sort of working for a government organization like the county, so…

CAVANAUGH: And this is something of a trend that we’ve been seeing in breakdowns of public sector salaries in recent years that the wages in state and local government’s jobs are going up while private sector wages are decreasing.

CALVERT: Well, the study that I saw that was published earlier this year actually said that the gap is growing…


CALVERT: …between the public sector pay and private sector pay but that was a national report. So…

CAVANAUGH: And growing in what sense?

CALVERT: In that the private sector salaries were higher than the…


CALVERT: …than the public sector…

CAVANAUGH: And is that for people who are the highly skilled positions such as doctors and lawyers? Or is it somebody who is, you know, doing the kind of a job that you might do in a clerical position at a private sector place?

CALVERT: Well, when I spoke with one of the report’s authors, John Heywood, who’s an economics professor in the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, he said that sort of that disparity between what someone can make in the higher – in the private sector and what someone can make in the public sector is widest for the sort of most skilled workers like attorneys, doctors, and that’s the range at which that gap is largest.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Because I believe that someone told you in the county, basically pointed to what attorneys are getting when they just start with the DA’s office here in San Diego County as opposed to what they could make in the private sector.

CALVERT: Umm-hmm. Right, that was Michelle Bush, the district attorney’s chief administrator, basically pointed out that their entry level attorneys basically are making $55,000 or $60,000 a year, which is, you know, not anywhere close to what they could be making as junior attorneys in a law firm.

CAVANAUGH: Now have we heard any response from county officials as to the – what we found out in this report? Are they going to do – Does any of this come as a surprise to them? Or are they basically saying, you know, we’re doing our best in this recession in trying to keep costs down.

CALVERT: Well, and, you know, I think that’s exactly what Pam Slater-Price told the Union-Tribune, is that the county has to pay people enough to retain the workers that they need but then you – through the basically hiring slowdown or freezes that you’ve seen in the different departments, they’re trying to control the size of the county’s bureaucracy basically.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you’ve had to wade through a lot of numbers, Kyla. Thank you so much for this report. I’ve been speaking with KPBS reporter Kyla Calvert. If you’d like to comment, please go online, Coming up, researching the science of medical marijuana, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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