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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The pay gap widens between worker bees and their bosses

For San Diego's North County Times and Carlsbadistan.com

Last week Carlsbad’s city council approved an amended employment agreement with City Manager Lisa Hildabrand, effective January 1, 2012, listing her new salary at $230,000.
Communications Director Kristina Ray told me Hildabrand’s $13,000 pay hike, which became effective November 28, was based on her 2008 contract.

You could hear the buzzing of angry city worker bees in Carlsbad and Escondido when they learned their bosses were getting huge salary increases while their own pay remained frozen. Adding insult to injury, some of Carlsbad’s lowest paid workers are facing cuts in take-home pay because of an increase in what they’re required to pay into the state’s retirement system.

The salary of Carlsbad’s city manager is linked to the second highest paid city manager in the county, excluding the city of San Diego. Annual increases are limited to the rise in California’s Consumer Price Index. But additional “salary adjustments” are allowed if the price of city managers is driven up by pay increases in other cities.

Hildabrand received no pay raises in 2009 and 2010, while general employees got yearly increases of 3.2 percent. The city manager cannot, by contract, receive salary adjustments “if economic considerations indicate no salary increases for employees are appropriate.”

So why did she get a 6 percent raise in November while the city’s lowest paid workers faced a two-year wage freeze? 

Ray explained, “Since city employees (police officers only) have received salary increases each year she has been city manager, this provision has not been triggered. The contract does not refer to any one employee group, rather ‘employees’ in general.”

Apparently, when it comes to executive pay hikes, the wages of firefighters and those who keep parks meticulously groomed, city libraries customer-friendly, and drinking water, traffic and sewage flowing safely can be disregarded.

Councilman Keith Blackburn said he wants city employees to be paid enough so that “we don’t lose our best people.” The lowest paid workers, of course, are the ones who can least afford to move. When they ask for pay raises they’re often reminded of how lucky they are to live and work in such a beautiful city. So why would a paycheck be the only thing keeping city executives from leaving Camelot to live and work in a less attractive, less manageable city?

If we value our lowest paid workers as much as we say we do, maybe their pay should be linked to the salaries of our highest paid employees. Carlsbad’s city manager now makes 7 times more than a first year park maintenance worker, up from 6 times last year. Will the worker bees get a 6 percent increase after two years of no raises to help them close the gap? Don’t hold your breath. I’m guessing the gap will only widen over the years, as it has in the private sector.

I hope Councilman Blackburn would agree our “best people” can be found at the bottom, as well as the top, of the pay scale.   

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