Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

KPBS Midday Edition

U-T Watchdog Report Reveals Highest Paid State Workers In SD County

The entrance to the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa is shown in this undated photo.
Angela Carone
The entrance to the R.J. Donovan Correctional Facility in Otay Mesa is shown in this undated photo.
U-T Watchdog Report Reveals Highest Paid State Workers In SD County
According to an investigative report by The San Diego Union-Tribune six state employees in San Diego County earned more than $200,000 in 2010. We'll tell you who's earning a bundle and why their agencies say they are worth so much.

U-T: Pay Survey Of Biggest Departments
An investigative report by The San Diego Union-Tribune Watchdog reveals the salaries of some highly paid state employees in San Diego County.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

The San Diego Union-Tribune Watchdog team looked at the top salaries earned by state employees who work here in San Diego. There are some surprises on the salary list and some sobering explanations given by the state-employed doctors and administrators about their income.



Matt Clark is the data specialist for the U-T Watchdog team.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: A Union Tribune investigation finds some state workers in San Diego earning a bundle. But are they worth it? And we begin a series of conversations about the urban farming movement in San Diego. This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Monday, August†29th. Here are the stories we're following this hour in the KPBS newsroom. Negotiate offer of proofs are searching for an 11th hour agreement to avert a strike by San Diego grocery workers 67 both sides returned to the bargaining table today. A proposal by the Albertson's, Ralph's, Vons grocery chains to reduce health benefit it is. For the second year, UC San Diego earned the top in the list of colleges that benefit the country. The university of San Diego ranked 64th in the survey while San Diego state university was number one thine. And speaking of SDSU, it's back to school day today for thousands of students there at cal state San Marcos. Students will face higher tuition costs, more competition to get spots in fewer classes, and the potential for more cuts later in the year, depending on state tax revenues. Listen for the latest stories throughout the day, here on KPBS.

We start Midday Edition with a review of state workers' salaries compiled by the Union Tribune Watchdog team. The Watchdog looked at the top salaries earned by state employees who work here in San Diego. There are some surprises on the salary list, and some sobering explanations given by the state employed doctors and administrators about their income. Joining me to talk about the pay survey is my guest, reporter Matt Clark, the data specialist at the UT Watchdog team. And Matt thank you for being here.

CLARK: Thank you for having me.


CAVANAUGH: Our listeners, if they have questions or comments are welcome to call, 1-888-895-5727. What prompted the UT Watchdog to examine these salaries, Matt?

CLARK: Well, certainly public employee pay is a big issue right now. And I think that was one component of our ongoing series as well as the issues in the city and the state controller's office has been continually releasing data on the pay of public employees at the state and local level in California.

CAVANAUGH: Remind us what happened in the city of bell that prompted such an outcry and caused this interest, really, renewed interest in how much public employees are making.

CLARK: Right. There were some officials there that were making, you know, hundreds and thousands of thousands of dollars, sort of patting themselves on the back with that kind of pay. And it was the LA Times that ended up discovering that situation. And it sort of reverberated nationally that this is something that's known across the country now. If you refer to the city of bell, you're talking about exposure tent public employee pay.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. Some would argue however that there's a difference between the public officials of Bell sort of making up their own salaries as they go along and these salaries that you focus on in this report that are determined by state negotiations.

CLARK: Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. Yes.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. So you would agree that there is some distinction to be made between the two.

CLARK: Oh, yes, for sure.

CAVANAUGH: How difficult is it to find out information about state workers' salaries.

CLARK: Oh, it's -- due to the state controller's office, it's actually quite easy. We asked for, hey, give us a list of all the employees in the state, their name, are the location where they work, and details about their pay, and it came within a few days.


CLARK: I believe that any be member of the public can do that.

CAVANAUGH: Your investigation did not include the salaries of the university of California or CSU employees, why not?

CLARK: -- obtaining the UC system salaries is actually more difficult, especially -- I guess the issue is that the UC system does not have comparable data in that they will give us the gross earnings of their employees but they won't break out various types of pay if the same way that their controller is doing it. It should be noted too that the controller is the manager of the state's payroll system, which is why they have the data for UC. We have the data for CSU but didn't want to focus on, okay, so here's all the state civil service workers, those that work for State Departments, then here's CSU, and then not include UC.

CAVANAUGH: Got it. What were some of the significant findings of this Watchdog investigation, Matt?

CLARK: The big 50 highest paid employees who, worked in San Diego County during 2010, were psychiatrists, physicians and surgeons, dentists and nurses that worked in the Richard J. Donovan correctional facility in Otay Mesa. They made between 100 and $83,473 and $464,280.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So the highest salaries made in this for the most part are prison doctors, is that fair to say?

CLARK: Right. Prison healthcare workers. Your psychiatrists I think were higher than some of the physicians and surgeon, followed by your dentists, and there was a couple of nurses on there and a counselor.

CAVANAUGH: When you say their earnings, what does this include? What do these numbers include? Does it include over time pay? Sick leave? Vacations? Or just per hour? What does it include?

CLARK: That's an excellent question. The total pay as we calculated it included their base salary, their regular pay, it included overtime pay, and it included another element that the controller's office refers to as "other pay" which includes a wide range of different types of pay. It could be core allowances, fringe benefits, uniform allowances, as well as and is this probably the most common, a special pay, pay differentials that are given to employees who have special skills or do different work than their counterparts. For instance a California highway patrol officer who is a canine officer will receive additional pay or someone who's bilingual will receive additional pay. Those are included in the total as well. What we did not include is the lump sum pays, giant checks that are given to employees when they leave state service. Career earned unused vacation or sick time. Some of those payments can be upwards of $100,000 or more. If we included those, it would have changed the rankings, but we wanted to focus on what did employees earn during 2010. Not what they earned during a 35-year career.

CAVANAUGH: Right. Now, does this come, these salaries in many cases for prison psychiatrists and doctors, that top $200,000, in many cases, those salaries are over $200,000 a year; is that right?

CLARK: These doctors?


CLARK: You know, I don't have that in front of me right now. I don't know. I believe that, yes, the majority of them were over 200,000. But I can't give you an exact number.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. So did you do any -- was the scope of this investigation, did it include any comparisons of psychiatrists' salaries in private hospitals or anything like that? Or is this just straightforward this is what the people in these positions make?

CLARK: Absolutely no. I did look at it. There are some that say, well, prisons in other states, it doesn't matter. We're all the same. All the prisons, it doesn't matter what prison you're working at. It's all the same. So why should doctors earn more here than they do in another state? There's two things, one is the cost of living is more expensive in California or in most areas I would assume of California. And the other is that we have some issues in our prisons here. In 2009, a class action lawsuit was filed against the state alleging that the state's prison system, healthcare system within the state prison system basically amounted to cruel and unusual punish. . That case was settled in 2002, and the can bes have improved when the federal government took control of the state's prison healthcare system. Those conditions, the things that led to that court decision are numerous. And those conditions also make the jobs of the doctors, psychiatrists, and dentists more difficult than they'd will be in places. I did talk to some prison doctors for this story. And they described to me situations where mice would be running across their feet as they're in the clinic at these prisons, you know, I know the Court case on the 2002 decision that led to the federal government taking control of the system noted that some of these clinics are not disinfected between when patients are in there. One, the spokes person for California prison healthcare correctional services told me that when they would go to request a patient's history, you'd get a file box with loose leaf paper in it that's not organized. Of the list goes on and on of some of the difficulties that are within the prison here. I also looked at the -- tried to compare the salaries of private sector workers with these doctors and psychiatrists and dentists that are within the prison. Just looking at base salary alone, and not any over time or anything that they may -- that the prison doctors may earn, what I found is that in comparing it with the annual average salary of all such employees in the county, so it would include some of these doctors in there, along all the doctors in San Diego County, where do the prison doctors fall in? And with all those, I found some of these, some of the base salaries for these positions was 100 and $8,000 more than an annual average salary for the same type of worker within San Diego County. But in other cases, it was only a thousand dollars more. And these doctors that I spoke with, two of them told me that in certain positions outside of the prison, I made more money before I came to the prison. The financial part of it, they say, it might get you in the door, it might attract you, that sounds really attractive to go and work for a prison and make that kind of money, but it's not gonna keep you there because there's many, many difficulties.

CAVANAUGH: One of the 50 questions I asked in the opening of this, are they worth it, is something you pose simply by showing your readers the facts and what the explanation of the prison doctors are giving you about the conditions in which they work, and what their brethren would make if they were working in the private sector. I want to tell everyone that reporter Matt Clark is my guest. He's data specialist for the UT Watchdog team. And we're talking about a new article in the UT, prison health workers rank high in pay survey. And it has a list of the highest paid state workers working here in San Diego. We're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Midge is on the line from La Mesa. Welcome to the show.

NEW SPEAKER: I love listening to it. It's always intriguing. I just wanted first of all to give kudos to the Watchdog team. They keep bringing up stuff that we kind of know about, we don't really know the details of. And I think anybody in a state position like that would take -- maybe the incentive would be to take less money because you know you don't have to go out and look for patients. You don't have to go out and pay experience and all kind was things like that. So I think those things become a little bit stabilizing in that way too. But given the high salaries, maybe their expertise deserves something. But this is getting to be outrageous. And I also wonder, those articles are so stimulating to a lot of different emotions and things to a lot of people in the state who are worried about what's happening with our finances. And like the municipal water district, and how we have how many millions of water district, Lan exaggeration, in the state when that could be consolidated to 2 or 3 with only 2 or 3 making that much money. How do we get that information to the state? Why are they not respond something why are we not getting more of a thing where, you know.

CAVANAUGH: They've got to stop you, Midge. I think wee got the gist of what you're asking.

CLARK: Thanks, Midge, very much.

CAVANAUGH: The state actually provided you with this information. So indeed, they know how much these people are making. And it's been part of negotiations that they have had with either collections like CHP or individual people for individual positions. Is that not right?

CLARK: Right. With the prisoners, it's a little different because the core cases have affected those salaries, that one of the things that occurred when the federal government took over the system is a loosening of some of the red tape that was in place that made it difficult for the corrections department to get those salaries increased.


CLARK: At the time, when the federal government took over, they were hiring -- according to the criminal case, doctors with criminal histories, with -- that had been kicked out of hospitals, and I believe one doctor put it that corrections would hire any doctor who had a license, a purse, and a pair of shoes.

CAVANAUGH: What a quote. I don't want to let everybody think that this is all about prison doctors and psychiatrists. There are some top paid getters here in the state who are members of the CHP, who had parks and recreation and various other administrative offices here in San Diego. We're kind of out of time. We could talk about this for a long time, Matt. But I just want to get your feeling, because we heard this from Midge, and I'm wondering, what is the purpose of a report like this? Because there is a sort of, I think, among a number of people a sort of knee jerk adverse reaction when they see that state workers are making high salaries. And what's -- what is the aim of this, beyond perhaps stimulating some angst among the population.

CLARK: Right, there is -- there's no shortage of that. And I think go you can catch the article on the Watchdog sight there, you'll -- you'll get a chance to see the other side of the coin, that it really does talk about some of the issues that have led to some of these high salaries for these prison healthcare workers. You also get to see some of the lower salaries. And we also calculated the median total pay of 500 different departments. So you can see how these salaries are different among the different types of workers at different branches. The other part of it too is that even though this data is available, and you can get it from the controller's office, not everybody has the ability to do that. And bee want to give people a bird's eye view so they're aware that there's a lot of interest in this. Here's some of the data. Here's some of the information. And I think that foremost is the most important reason to be writing an article that tries to be a little bit of a bird's eye view. That being said, there will be many more along these lines, and especially some additional articles specifically on employee pay. And we'll be able to come back and talk about those.

CAVANAUGH: We'd love to have you. Thank you. I've been speaking with Matt Clark of the UT Watchdog team. Thanks for coming in.

CLARK: Thank you.