The Modesto Irrigation District bolstered its standing as one of the highest-paying local employers with the contracts approved by the board this week on a 3-2 vote.
The last raise for the district's 400-plus workers was in 2008, and all five directors agreed that employees deserved cost-of-living increases. There are three of them: 3.9 percent retroactive to July 1; 2.2 percent effective at the end of this month and to 4 percent at the end of 2013.
The two board members who voted against the new labor agreements, Glen Wild and Tom Van Groningen, said they would have preferred to phase in the additional raises that emerge from a survey comparing the MID compensation to that of 14 other Northern California utilities and public agencies. Those increases range from 3 to 34 percent which will make it a merry Christmas for more than half of the district's employees.
Employees in positions that the survey showed are paid higher than the market rates will not get the cost-of-living raises; those at the market rate will not receive a retroactive pay raise but will get cost-of-living raises this month and at the end of 2013.
Are such raises fair and appropriate in this economy? It obviously depends on your perspective. The MID has reduced its work force through attrition, but individual employees have not sacrificed the way most other government workers have. There have been no unpaid furlough days or temporary or permanent pay cuts, things that teachers and city and county workers have experienced in recent years.
We fully agree that the MID needs to hire and retain good employees, and that can be hard to do in high-demand fields such as water treatment operators.
What almost no one is talking about is that the MID has another carrot to offer some of the most generous health and pension benefits in the region. That showed up very clearly in the compensation study done by an outside consultant.
For the health plan taken by most employees, the MID was paying $2,069 per month, the highest among the agencies. They were contributing anywhere from about $500 to $1,600 per month. How does this affect compensation? Take the example of an engineering technician II. His or her cash compensation for the month would be $6,234 per month, about 4 percent below the median for the comparison market. However, with the health benefits factored in, the MID engineering tech makes about $8,600 per month, 2.4 percent more than the market median.
Under the new labor agreements, good through December 2014, the MID continues to pay 100 percent of the premium costs for dental, life, disability and insurance programs. Employees pay only 10 percent of the monthly premium for health insurance. MID retirees have one of the sweetest deals around health coverage at the rate of $8 per month.
No one spoke against the MID's pay raises probably because for the first time in several years, the district isn't proposing to raise electricity rates. But it also may be that MID customers aren't aware that the district's benefits package isn't just fair but could be considered extravagant for our region.