The State Worker: Public jobs now more public than ever

jortiz@sacbee.comDecember 27, 2012 

Say your neighbor is thinking about a job with the state. What advice would you offer?

Sacramento Assemblyman Roger Dickinson said last week that he'd advise that neighbor to think about this trade-off: Are you willing to take a public service job and lose your privacy?

He didn't mention the lower state and local government pensions that kick in for new hires as of New Year's Day. He didn't talk about pay, even though many state positions come with lower wages than similar private-sector or local government jobs.

"Frankly, when you're a public employee, increasingly, you have less and less privacy," said Dickinson, who worked for the California Department of Consumer Affairs 30 years go. His Assembly district may have more state employees than any other.

He's right. The Internet and the courts have made public work very public.

California's state controller maintains a state and local government pay website (minus individuals' names). South Carolina's state pay search engine spits out names and wages for employees earning at least $50,000 per year. Illinois posts last paycheck amounts and year-to-date figures.

News outlets, including The Bee, reorganize ponderous public salary figures into nimble search engines that filter data by name, department, regular wages and other pay data such as overtime. Spend just five minutes on Google and you'll find at least a dozen media-sponsored pay sites around the country.

Retiree pension information? Same deal.

Such disclosures were a matter of debate until court decisions in the last five years declared California public employees' pay and pensions are public record. It was a big win for news organizations and others who contend public spending should be transparent.

"When I was a state employee, you never had to have the thought cross your mind that your salary might be public or your name would necessarily be available to anyone," Dickinson said wistfully. "Today, you want to be a clerk-typist? You better think about that. Your neighbor can look up what you're making."

Dickinson suggested that many state workers and potential hires don't comprehend how open information has changed government culture, but the state doesn't educate them, either.

Officials at the Department of Human Resources and CalPERS, the state's public pension fund, said Wednesday that they didn't know of any formal notice given to employees or prospective hires that their income becomes public when they take a state job.

"It probably wouldn't be a bad practice," said Howard Schwartz, chief deputy director of the state's human resources department.

He suspects some state employers mention pay disclosure rules when hiring for big-ticket positions.

"But I agree" with Dickinson, Schwartz said. "They might want think to twice about public employment."

Sound advice.

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