California’s Public Scientists Union Battles Covid-19, Climate Crisis, and Austerity on Pay from Newsom Administration

CAPS members pose with Gov. Newsom

By Steve Sander for, CC BY-NC-NA 4.0

The California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS) represents toxicologists, biologists, veterinarians, geologists, chemists, and other scientific practitioners and researchers who play pivotal roles in ensuring that the state’s residents have clean and sanitary food, water, air, and soil. Many state scientists are also leading the state’s response to climate change, which has been identified as an existential threat to civilization as we know it.

Many Californians isolate strong environmental protections as one of the main reasons why they continue residing in the state, in spite of the high cost of living compared with other parts of the country. But unfilled positions in environmental protection risk rendering California’s environmental statutes, regulations, and standards as worthless and irrelevant, if they cannot be meaningfully implemented and enforced.

Despite all its rhetoric to the contrary, California’s Newsom administration doesn’t appear to value the work of its state employees on the front lines of the fight against climate change. If it did, it would direct the State’s Department of Human Resources (CalHR) to accede to some key demands being made to address “pay equity” by the State’s scientists union.

On the Front Lines Against Covid-19

In 2020, CAPS members were among the first outside of medical workers to work on combatting the novel virus. A CAPS press release from May 2020 states the following:

 “…CAPS members play a vital role on the frontlines of California’s fight against COVID-19 by, identifying infected residents through laboratory testing. In March [2020], state scientists in the Bay Area identified more than 100 passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship who carried the novel coronavirus connected to the deadly disease….”

One CAPS member describes his frontline experience in an April 2021 letter to CalHR:

“My assignment was to manage the Grand Princess Cruise Ship’s manifest of passenger and crew information and link it with SARS-CoV-2 laboratory test data as more than 1,000 individuals disembarked the ship in Oakland, were tested, and went into quarantine. The goal was to identify and track COVID-19 cases as they moved from the ship to a hospital or quarantine location, and ultimately, to prevent the spread of the virus into our local communities.”

They go on to describe the level of dedication it took for state scientists to adequately facilitate response efforts that Gov. Newsom implicitly took credit for:

“Rotations on the Data Team were especially grueling—most days were 12-16 hours. We often received additional, urgent and complicated assignments for media requests from major news agencies such as CNN and ABC. We performed time-sensitive analyses to answer questions for Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly. I analyzed data and wrote a summary for former State Epidemiologist Dr. Gil Chavez before he briefed the California Legislature. We performed analyses directly for the Governor’s Office and worked past midnight to update data in Governor Newsom’s slides that he was presenting at a Monday morning press briefing.”

They also describe how these efforts continued for months and how their pay has been cut while they were making this sacrifice:

“We are required to track our hours while working on the COVID-19 response. In 2020, I spent at least 1,232 hours working on COVID-19 response activities. This included 357 hours or nine work weeks of additional, unpaid labor on nights and weekends. When I submitted for arduous pay early in the response, my claim was rejected because of a technicality on how a work week was defined. I thought this was trivial, but given how many more hours my colleagues contributed, I thought it would be equally as trivial if I contested the rejection. Further, CDPH scientists have worked the majority of our hours on the COVID-19 response with the current 9.23% pay reduction.”

They remark on how this financial disrespect has impacted their housing situation:

“I always assumed that as our careers advanced we would be able to grow into a larger apartment or perhaps buy a home. Even with my promotions from Cal-EIS to grant-funded epidemiologist, to research scientist II and then research scientist III, our current apartment is still our best and only option in the Bay Area. We now understand that unless we either leave the public sector or leave the Bay Area, we will be stuck in this apartment for years to come.”

And they conclude with an appeal to give state scientists who sacrifice so much for the public good a decent living:

“It is time for CalHR to recognize and act on the opportunity it has to end systematic inequalities that undermine marginalized groups, including women and people of color, in our civil service or prevent them from considering a career in the public sector altogether. It is time for CalHR to close longstanding gaps in benefits and wages immediately, and to make public service viable to more professionals who will not only increase the diversity and skillset of our workforce, but will also more fully represent the California communities that we serve.”

It heartbreaking that these words have still gone unheeded by CalHR and the Newsom administration for over a year. But given the state’s current financial windfall, it is also an outrage.

Pay Equity

With an estimated $97 billion budget surplus (as of May 2022), the Newsom administration can afford to give its scientists a much-needed raise. To recruit and retain experienced and talented civil servants, the administration must increase compensation in order to fill enough positions to be able to adequately protect Californians and the environment. The starting wage for the Environmental Scientist position, which requires a four-year degree in a scientific discipline, is now $24.09/hr.

The California Department of Human Resources (CalHR) oversees the collective bargaining process with CAPS. Thus far, the union has put forth a series of reasonable demands, but CalHR is refusing to entertain the proposals. CAPS’ proposal calls for pay equity has highlighted the issue of problems with the vertical and horizontal salary relationships of the Environmental Scientist classification series, which constitutes a majority of represented employees within the union.

In terms of vertical pay disparity, CAPS has put forth a proposal to correct the imbalances within the series. There used to exist a fairly inconsequential gap between the pay of the classifications Senior Environmental Scientist (Supervisory) and Senior Environmental Scientist (Specialist), but that gap has ballooned substantially over the years. Now, the starting and maximum wage of the supervisory position is several thousand dollars per month higher than that of the specialist position, even though the qualifications for both classifications are identical. CAPS proposes to have CalHR increase the wages of the specialist position so that they are commensurate with that of their Supervisory peers.

Even more striking is the gap in pay between state scientists and their engineer counterparts. Although the job duties and educational background of state scientists closely resemble those of the engineer classifications, scientists have received far fewer and far smaller pay increases over the years, resulting in another substantial disparity wherein engineers are paid thousands of dollars more than state scientists.

CalHR’s bargaining position has resulted in the State having to compete against private sector employers willing to pay far higher wages and provide much better benefits than what the State is willing to offer.

July 29th State Capitol Rally

Calls for the State of California to translate rhetoric into action grew louder on Friday, July 29, when workers represented by the California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS) gathered in front of the California State Capitol to demand a fair contract.

State scientists have continued operating under the prior Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which expired in 2020.

The event marked an escalation in a years-long campaign undertaken by the union to ensure that the scientists employed by the State of California, many of whom are degreed professionals and are distinguished in their fields of study, can afford to live in the state they want to protect.

Over 50 state employees took part in the rally, holding signs and taking off time from work in order to attend the action.

Pulling out all the stops

The Union has delivered several petitions, letters, and appeals from managers, supervisors, employees, and members of the public, and has conducted several “Avoiding Collapse” presentations that illustrate the critical role state scientists play in helping preserve the environment—all to no avail, thus far, with CalHR negotiators continuing to refuse to even entertain the notion of pay equity.

Prior to the latest action on July 29, CAPS held a petition delivery action on May 6, 2022, in which dozens of members picketed outside of key Sacramento buildings such as the California Environmental Protection Agency building, the Department of Finance, and the Governor’s Office.

Until the matter is resolved, California’s environment risks further degradation due to the inability of the State to hire enough people to protect it.

Author Info

Steven Sander is a state scientist, organizer, CAPS member and board member of Sacramento Area Peace Action.


Block quotes from: April 2021 Letter to CalHR

Take Action

If you live in California, you can help by contacting public officials, particularly Governor Newsom, and urging them to take the demands of CAPS seriously.

You can contact Governor Newsom using this form on his State website, and you can select “Budget 2022-2023” from the dropdown menu as the subject.

Here is a template message:

Dear Governor,

I’m writing to ask that the administration direct CalHR and other relevant agencies to allow for an agreement to make CAPS union members (State Scientists) paid more, commensurately with their importance to our public health, climate, and ecosystems. This should be an immediate priority for the administration, given the understaffing that has resulted from the pay disparity in these state sectors between affected workers and their colleagues in private sector employment, as well as their colleagues working in other fields in various State agencies.

Please see that this situation is rectified immediately, so that CA State scientists and their families can live financially secure, dignified lives and so that important state agencies will no longer be understaffed, and their services vital to our public health, climate and ecosystems will not go or under- or un-performed.

(your name)

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