CAVALA: Legislature Victim Of Yet Another ‘Cheap Shot’?

Posted on 12 October 2009

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By Bill Cavala
A veteran of over 30 years in Sacramento

The Sacramento BEE is leading yet another crusade against the State Legislature.  This attack focuses on the benefits provided Legislative employees.  While factually accurate, the BEE story is biased and unfair.

After listing the benefits – which contrast favorably on paper with those enjoyed by other state employees and many private sector employees (like BEE reporters), and then allowing reliable witnesses like Jonathan Coupal of the Howard Jarvis organization to take his usual shot at any government action, it isn’t until paragraph 16 (after the fold) that we find the following:

“Unlike other state workers legislative aides lack civil service protections, receive no automatic pay increases can be fired without cause, receive no overtime compensation and must try to get hired by another legislator when theirs leaves office”.

Which, because of term limits, is a five year occurrence.

Let’s look at the lavish benefits exposed in this hard-hitting report. 

Vacations?  “Vacations ranging up to six weeks for long time employees”.  But with a 35% staff turnover “every year” – a fact listed in paragraph 17 – how many “long time employees” are around to enjoy their six weeks?   I was such an employee.   In my 25 years of service I enjoyed a net 20 days of “vacation”.  My vacation “time” was used up in unpaid volunteer service in political work in an effort to keep my employer in a job where he could employ me.

Retirement benefits?   The same as other state employees and not as good as those enjoyed by the staff of Legislative “sergeants” – who are “peace officers”.  But who are the Legislative employees who serve long enough or are old enough to retire in grade?   Typically they are the clerical workers of the Legislature, not the highly paid attaches of my grade.  
With a few exceptions, the top staff in the legislature are short termers who move on to more lucrative positions in the private sector.  (The one benefit they do enjoy – lifetime health care after five years of service – was put into place precisely because of the brain drain that would otherwise be a flood.  And when it was put in place, the cost of health care was far less than is the case today).

In fact, most of the benefit package enjoyed by Legislative staff was put into place years ago because of the relatively low pay they received.  Before the Salary commission moved Legislative salaries into a reasonable range, staff had to deal with the realities of “making more than the boss”.  Few did, and those few were subject to calumny and abuse by less well paid Members. 

The BEE story notes in passing the absence of overtime compensation.  But it neglects to document what that means in reality.  For years I kept a personal log of my time (to be able to document that I wasn’t spending that time on illegal political work).

I averaged between 55 and 60 hours a week, working 8-7 without a lunch break during the week and a half day on Sundays.  And none of this included those more visible overtime hours accrued during night-time sessions.  Staff receives neither compensation nor compensatory time off for this extra work.  This is part of what the absence of civil service protection means.

In 1995, the Republicans won control of the Assembly.  Their first action was to cap Legislative salaries at a point where it affected three employees:  Willie Brown’s Chief of Staff, Willie Brown’s Director of Majority Services, and me.  Then they seized the garbage from my office and went through it for evidence of malfeasance.  Although they found none they did find one of the employees in our office with political posters decorating his walls.  He had to hire an expensive attorney to defend himself during the two week “investigation” that followed before it was finally determined that employees had the right to decorate their offices.  Neither law nor rules provide any protection against this kind of treatment.

Willie Brown used to say, I think accurately, that we did this work for the psychic, not material benefits.  For those talented enough to do that work there are easier ways to make money.  Forget the hours, the stress involved in work which is necessarily both competitive and fraught with conflict.  When you lose over a third of your workforce every year, the benefits are obviously not excessive.   Of the more than two dozen people who filled the top positions in Willie Brown’s office during his tenure as Speaker, exactly two made it to retirement.  (Chief Clerk Dotson Wilson will likely be the third).

Bill Cavala was Deputy Director of the Assembly Speaker’s Office of Member Services where he worked for over 30 years. He attended undergraduate and graduate school in the 1960’s and received a doctorate in political science at UC Berkeley. He taught political science at UC Berkeley during the 1970's while he worked part-time for the State Assembly.

Cavala left teaching at UC Berkeley for Assembly Speaker Willie Brown in 1981 until his tenure as Speaker ended in 1995, and he has worked for his five successors as Speaker. He now manages election campaigns for Democratic candidates.

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