2024 News of Note

CalEPA made a bad decision in forcing 5,000 employees back into the office twice a week | Opinion by PECG President Brad Shelton

The Sacramento Bee via Yahoo News
February 15, 2024

Four years ago, telework rescued California’s state government from COVID and launched an era of innovation rivaled only by the introduction of desktop computers and the internet. Now, the California Environmental Protection Agency wants to force its 5,000 employees back into the office for at least two full days per week.  

It’s a bad idea.

According to CalEPA Secretary Yana Garcia’s Jan. 12 agency-wide email, the in-office mandate will start next spring and foster “collaboration,” strengthen “teams” and enhance “communication.”

As president of Professional Engineers in California Government (PECG), I am confident that the vast majority of the 14,000 state engineers, architects, geologists and related professionals we represent emphatically disagree.

CalEPA’s plan retreats to an outdated, inefficient, butts-in-office-chairs model that will hurt morale and productivity, suppress recruitment and retention, harm the environment and increase operational costs while the state confronts a budget deficit. PECG members and all state employees pivoted long ago. Virtual tools like Teams, Zoom and Slack enhance remote collaboration and are more cost-effective for taxpayers than noisy office buildings crowded with cubicles and conversations about everything but work.

You will find the rest of President Shelton’s op-ed by clicking here.

To access PECG’s news page for other important and interesting reports that impact California state engineers and related professionals, please click here.

Return to office: State workers say looming mandate would cost more than money.
The Sacramento Bee (tiered subscription)
February 12, 2024

The California Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees CARB among other boards, offices, and departments, has told its employees to plan for two days a week in-office starting sometime in March.  The California Health and Human Services Agency, as well as the Employment Development Department, have issued similar announcements.  The agencies must meet and confer with state employee unions before implementing any changes.

In an email to staff, CalEPA Secretary Yana Garcia touted what she saw as the “critical opportunities” that in-person work provides — mentorship and networking for early-career employees and knowledge-sharing through impromptu hallway conversations, among them.  

But, by and large, state workers said they aren’t sold on the aforementioned benefits of in-office work.

Ted Toppin, executive director of the Professional Engineers in California Government, questioned why the state is bringing back thousands of employees without demonstrating an operational need.  “Outdated thinking dies hard — this notion that collaboration and team-building are done in offices filled with cubicle farms is just not how PECG members think about it anymore,” Toppin said.  “They’ve seen the future, and it’s on Zoom.  It’s on Slack.  It’s on virtual platforms where they can be in constant communication with their teams across the state.”

Sacramento Bee subscribers can click here to read the complete article.

To access PECG’s news page for other important and interesting reports that impact California state engineers and related professionals, please click here.

Can California state employee unions protect civil servants from crackdowns on telework? 
The Sacramento Bee (tiered subscription)
January 24, 2024

Two California state agencies have publicly announced plans to bring workers back to office twice a week.  The governor’s budget also includes a plan to eliminate monthly telework stipends — a small yet symbolic sum of money — to help “offset” the estimated $38 billion deficit.  Understandably, most state employees are ticked.

“Our members are frustrated and find a mandate totally unnecessary,” said Ted Toppin, executive director of the Professional Engineers in California Government.  “We’re going to fight it with all our might, and that means advocating with the administration from the governor’s office on down.”

In PECG’s case, the current contract states that telework should not be “unreasonably denied” to members — a phrase that Toppin says is subject to interpretation.  The union will argue that the state cannot unnecessarily make people come into work without a demonstrated operational need.  On the other hand, departments could opine that they aren’t denying anything to employees. 

“We’ve met every deliverable.  No one is suggesting that the work isn’t getting done,” Toppin said.  “So, what would necessitate everyone coming into the office two days a week?”

Please click here to read the complete article in The Sacramento Bee.

To access PECG’s news page for other important and interesting reports that impact California state engineers and related professionals, please click here.

2022 News of Note Archives

Unions prepare to fight as California state departments order employees back to offices

The Sacramento Bee (tiered subscription)
March 30, 2022

California state departments are getting serious about forcing employees who have been working remotely for two years to return to their offices.

Several unions representing telework-eligible state employees are fighting rigid in-office requirements, calling them arbitrary and unnecessary. They want more flexibility, including full-time telework when it makes sense.

“Telework has worked over the last two years,” said Ted Toppin, executive director of the Professional Engineers in California Government. “Setting mandatory days in the office without demonstrating any need or operational need, that sort of thinking has gone the way of the dodo bird. It’s not necessary to deliver for California taxpayers.”

A state policy template published in October said all eligible state employees were “authorized to participate to the fullest extent possible” in telework, so long as their performance wasn’t diminished.

Union representatives say that means full-time telework for employees whose jobs can accommodate it.

“To say someone should be in an office for two or three days a week contravenes the policy,” said Toppin, whose union represents about 14,000 employees.

Toppin said the state’s engineers can do the vast majority of their work remotely on computers – including designing bridges, roads, and water facilities and making sure schools and hospital building plans comply with seismic safety standards.

Toppin said the union plans to request formal meetings, known as meet-and-confers, with “every department that has a permanent telework policy that is inconsistent with the statewide policy.”

California should embrace telework for state employees CalMatters Op-Ed by Cameron Knudson, PECG President March 24, 2022

Two years ago, COVID-19 prodded the state of California to launch a massive telework program, the most significant operational change to public service since the adoption of desktop computers. It has been a rousing success.

Now we have arrived at a critical juncture as departments formalize remote-work policies for the post-pandemic world: Will we fully embrace flexible telework as COVID worries ease, or slide back toward an outdated, inefficient, butts-in-seats business model that poorly serves Californians, state employers and state employees?

Early indications, unfortunately, suggest the latter. Departments are ordering employees back to the office by April 1 for two, three and four days a week without identifying any operational need for the mandate.

As president of Professional Engineers in California Government, I can tell you many of the 14,000 state engineers, architects, geologists, and related professionals we represent don’t understand these recent return-to-the-office edicts. Sadly, two years of employee resilience, innovation, and success are giving way to an old paradigm that dismissed state telework for 30 years.

Please click here to read the complete article in CalMatters. CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

2021 News of Note Archives

California state worker retirements jumped 15% in the year of pay cuts, coronavirus
The Sacramento Bee (tiered subscription)
February 17, 2021

State employee retirements increased 15% last year in California amid pay cuts and changes to working conditions brought on by the coronavirus, according to California Public Employees’ Retirement System data. While state workers headed for the exits, retirements among local government employees — who generally avoided pay cuts and even received scheduled raises last year — decreased 7% compared to 2019, according to preliminary figures from CalPERS.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California State Legislature imposed pay cuts on state workers starting in July. Most employees took a base pay cut of 9.23% under union-negotiated agreements. Most employees receive two days off per month in exchange for the reduction in pay, and the state softened the blow by suspending the contributions employees normally make to their retirement health care.

“No one likes to take a pay cut, so it’s understandable that some employees would choose to retire rather than accept less money for their work,” said Ted Toppin, executive director of the Professional Engineers in California Government. Retirements were up 25% among the approximately 11,000 employees PECG represents, Toppin said.

“They’re losing a huge asset,” he said. “The state needs engineers and related professionals to deliver infrastructure projects. And when folks retire, that’s not accessible to them.”

The pay cut agreements, negotiated when the state was projecting a $54 billion budget deficit, also delayed the raises many employees were scheduled to receive last year and this year.

The budget projections turned out to be wrong, and the state is now anticipating a surplus for the year ahead. Newsom’s administration has said that while the future remains uncertain, the state might restore workers’ pay in July.

State employees’ pensions are calculated based primarily on their highest pay in state service combined with their age and years of service. Those earning the highest pay of their careers as they approach retirement stand to increase their pensions by continuing to work and increase their pay. Without a raise on the horizon, there’s less incentive to stay.

CalPERS reported the most retirements for December, when it processed 3,315 of them — a 17% increase from the prior year. State employees tend to retire in the highest numbers at the end of calendar and fiscal years.

New details on Newsom’s state worker proposal — what happens to raises, health deductions?
The Sacramento Bee (tiered subscription)
January 15, 2021

Gov. Gavin Newsom tentatively offered state employees some good news last week when he said his administration might undo the pay cuts the workers absorbed last summer. Newsom provided few specifics, citing uncertainty surrounding the state’s financial forecast despite projections of a surplus. The Finance Department later posted more specific budget documents that, while still not final, show the administration anticipates restoring pay in July while continuing to withhold raises many workers were scheduled to receive last summer.

Several union leaders said the employees they represent should get those raises or similar increases.

“This pandemic has hurt a lot of people, but it did not have the severe budget implications that it was assumed to have last year, so let’s start undoing the cuts that state employees had to bear to be part of the solution,” said Ted Toppin, executive director of the union Professional Engineers in California Government.

The proposed budget would end the personal leave program that reduced most state workers’ pay by 9.23%. Should the program end, employees also would resume contributing to their retirement health care. The contributions, which range from 1.4% to 4.6% of state workers’ pay, were suspended to soften the hit from the cuts. The state also suspended until July 2022 most of the raises it had agreed to give workers in union contracts. Department-level budget documents don’t reflect any general salary increases in the fiscal year to come, suggesting those raises will remain suspended.

However, “the level of available federal aid or stimulus funding available could be part of the determination in May as to whether the state’s fiscal condition permits proposing to end the (personal leave) program early,” Palmer, the Finance Department spokesman, said in an email.

2020 News of Note Archives

California state union questions open floor plans, shrinking cubicles in an age of coronavirus
The Sacramento Bee (tiered subscription)
May 1, 2020

California leaders should give the same attention to reopening state government as they are giving to reopening businesses and public spaces, a state union said this week in a letter to the Newsom administration.

The letter, sent Wednesday by the Professional Engineers in California Government, aims to “start the conversation” around how the state will make sure its offices are safe for employees when they begin to return to them, said Ted Toppin, the union’s executive director.

“We’re talking about what restaurants will look like next month and into the future; let’s do the same evaluation of what state buildings and state workplaces will look like,” Toppin said.

That discussion should also include a new look at Department of General Services plans for renovating and building new state offices, the letter says.

Open floor plans, collaborative spaces, and reductions to private offices should be reconsidered given threats from the coronavirus and other infectious diseases that could come along, the letter says.

Renovations at the California Environmental Protection Agency shrank cubicles to 49 square feet from 80 square feet for rank-and-file workers.

Design changes “encourage workspaces that are shared by two or more employees, increase densities by cutting the space allotted to all classifications of employees and drastically limit the height of cubicles,” says the union letter, signed by union president Joe Mello.

Please click here to read the complete article in The Sacramento Bee (tiered subscription).

Please click here to read President Joe Mello’s Letter to DGS.

Public pensions survived the Great Recession. They will survive coronavirus, too
By Ted Toppin,
PECG’s Executive Director
April 19, 2020
Special to The Sacramento Bee (tiered subscription)

For most Americans these days, timing is everything when it comes to retirement.

At the moment, it looks like those who recently retired or who are on the cusp of retirement may have picked a bad time to be born. For them, the steep drop in the investment markets caused by the coronavirus pandemic came at just the wrong moment.

History tells us that the markets will recover and that cycles of ups and downs are inevitable. But under a retirement-security system that relies upon individual accounts – 401(k)s – many of those whose retirement coincides with a down cycle will not be around long enough for their savings to fully recover.

There is a way to flatten to curve. They’re called pensions – collective retirement savings systems into which workers of all ages and their employers contribute and which have professionally managed, diversified investments. They are built to withstand the extremes of economic cycles.

Those who receive pension benefits during down times receive no less income. Those who receive benefits during boom times receive no bonus. That’s what flattens the curve.

Regrettably, fewer than 5 percent of private-sector workers today are able to participate in a pension fund.

In the wake of this latest market spiral, one might expect to see renewed public discourse about our national failing to address retirement security. Instead, what we’ve seen so far is a new round of alarmist attacks on public sector pensions.

It is true that public-employee pension funds, including CalPERS and CalSTRS in California, have seen the point-in-time value of their investments decline. Especially given the uncertainty about the ultimate course of this pandemic and its effect on the economy, it is far too soon to tell how deep and long-lasting the effects on markets will be. But the expectation that investments will experience times of negative returns is inherently built into fund planning.

Unlike personal accounts in which short-term timing is everything, what matters for pension funds is the long term. Over the last 10 years, CalPERS’ annual returns have averaged 9.1 percent. Over the last 30 years, it’s been 8.1 percent – and, remember, that 30-year period includes the disastrous financial meltdown of 2008, during which the S&P 500 fell by 44 percent over two years.

Please click here to read the complete opinion piece in The Sacramento Bee (tiered subscription).

‘Outdated attitude’: Why California wasn’t ready for its state workers to telecommute
March 25, 2020
The Sacramento Bee (tiered subscription)

A decade before the new coronavirus arrived in California, the state encouraged departments to promote telework. In addition to improving performance, morale, health and wellness, teleworking could promote “effective continuation of business” during an emergency, according to 2010 guidance issued by the Department of General Services. Yet three weeks after California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared an emergency to help address the virus, many state workers say they are facing resistance, confusion, and uneven responses when they ask to work remotely.

“It’s a scary and difficult time and you’d like to think that the state of California departments were moving to adhere to the governor’s executive order to stay at home and protect public health,” said Ted Toppin, executive director of the union Professional Engineers in California Government, which represents Caltrans engineers. “And for the state to do that, that means to put their employees to work at home. But we know this: State government is a battleship. It is very slow.”

Toppin, the director of the state engineers’ union, said the union has supported telework for a long time.

“Maybe what comes out of this crisis is that state departments will recognize that telework will work,” he said. “That you can still deliver for taxpayers from your home office.”

Please click here to read the full text of the article in The Sacramento Bee (tiered subscription).

New telecommuting guidance for California state workers for coronavirus outbreak
March 18, 2020
The Sacramento Bee

Governor Gavin Newsom’s administration this morning gave guidance for state employee telework policy as the government continues to seek avenues to slow the spread of the coronavirus. CalHR sent an email to stakeholders, outlining “essential” government functions “meant as a guide and not as an exhaustive list.”

The email’s key paragraph states, “Effective immediately departments should establish a staff management plan that allows for effective social distancing for those in the office, takes into consideration stay-at-home directives from state and local public health departments, and protects the health of employees over the entire length of this crisis. This plan must ensure that mission-critical (“critical”) functions and services are maintained, consistent with public health needs arising from this emergency.”

2019 News of Note Archives

Check your paycheck – Nearly 1,000 state workers didn’t get raises after their last contract
June 27, 2019
The Sacramento Bee
Nearly 1,000 members of Professional Engineers in California Government reported payroll errors after their 2018 contract was signed in September, and 300 are still trying to recover pay they believe they are owed, according to emails and interviews. The union is continuing its efforts to get all workers their correct back pay, but “this is past the point of being explainable,” PECG Executive Director Ted Toppin said in an interview.

How California’s troubled high-speed rail project was ‘captured’ by costly consultants
April 26, 2019
Los Angeles Times
Nearly a decade ago, PECG warned state officials that outsourcing engineering work for California’s high-speed rail project would be fiscally irresponsible. Today, the project is $44 billion over budget and 13 years behind schedule, with the Authority itself transformed into what PECG Executive Director Ted Toppin calls, “A consultant-captured organization … run entirely by engineering consultants for engineering consultants.” Times investigative reporter Ralph Vartabedian digs into how the overreliance on outsourcing embedded organizational conflicts of interest, cronyism, confused lines of authority, and poor business decisions that have already cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

My turn: Public-private partnerships are an industry gimmick that don’t serve public well
February 6, 2019
The start of a new legislative session inevitably brings calls from industry for lawmakers to authorize privatizing state highway projects through so-called “public-private partnerships.” That would be a mistake. This article by PECG President Cathrina Barros was posted online on February 6, 2019, by CalMatters, an influential State Capitol news organization.

2018 News of Note Archives

California state engineers say yes to 8.5 percent raise, other perks
September 12, 2018
The Sacramento Bee
The union that represents California state engineers announced on Wednesday that its members ratified a two-year contract that nets them a cumulative 8.5 percent general wage increase and delivers a number of other perks. Professional Engineers in California Government reported that 98.4 percent of members who cast ballots favored the contract. “It’s a fair and appropriate deal. It’s the right thing for the state and for PECG members,” said PECG Executive Director Ted Toppin.

You can get a job at Caltrans in two days. It still has 1,100 openings.
September 12, 2018
The Sacramento Bee
Motivated by a wave of retirements and an urgency to fill new positions created by the state’s gas tax increase, Caltrans has devised a bureaucracy-defying human resources program that has let it bring on hundreds of new employees at a time during hiring events. It’s racing to add staff in a hot economy in which other engineering firms and local governments also are bulking up. “They need design staff to deliver state highway projects,” said Ted Toppin, executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government. “That’s what Californians expect. Right now they’re competing with other state and local departments and the private sector for engineers, so the need to on-board them is real or they’re going to lose them.”

April 9, 2018

SB 1 Funds Allow Caltrans to Add Many Overdue Road Improvements – SCV News
Caltrans submitted its 2018 State Highway Operations and Protection Program to the California State Legislature last week, anticipating nearly 1,000 projects totaling $18 billion. That was $7 billion more than the 2016 SHOPP proposal and a sign that SB 1 money has allowed the department to accelerate projects previously held back due to a lack of funds.

After Heavy Rains, First Use of Partly Rebuilt Oroville Dam Spillway Now ‘Unlikely’ – The Sacramento Bee
Last week, the California Department of Water Resources said the storm might cause water levels in the Lake Oroville reservoir to rise to the “trigger elevation” of 830 feet. At that point, DWR officials planned to open the spillway gates and release water down the 3,000-foot-long concrete chute. But the lake level only reached 799.7 feet over the weekend.

Southern California Might Pay for Two Delta Tunnels After All – The Sacramento Bee
The Metropolitan Water District, in a memo Friday to its Board, said board members will vote on supporting one of two options for the controversial project: Spend about $5 billion to help pay for a single tunnel or spend nearly $11 billion to fund the majority share of two tunnels.

White House Seeks to Speed Reviews of Major Infrastructure Projects – Reuters
The Trump Administration is announcing a new effort to speed environmental reviews for major infrastructure projects.

Caltrans is Desperate to Fill Thousands of New Jobs
March 13, 2018 The Sacramento Bee

Landmark Infrastructure Funding Bill Spurs Major Job Creation in California
February 5, 2018

2017 News of Note Archives

Public Employees Should Control CalPERS Election, by Mark Sheahan
September 18, 2017 The Sacramento Bee Letters to the Editor

Don’t Waste Highway Money on Greedy Private Contractors, by Bruce Blanning
July 3, 2017 The Sacramento Bee

2016 News of Note Archives

2015 News of Note Archive

Blame Politicians, Not the Bridge Builders by Roy Flores, PECG Past President
November 6, 2015 The San Diego Union Tribune Letter to the Editor

California State Engineers Ratify Contract
October 28, 2015 The Sacramento Bee

State Engineers Okay Contract That Requires They Pay for Retiree Benefits
October 14, 2015 The Sacramento Bee

Brown Signs Labor Agreements
September 22, 2015 Capital Public Radio

PG&E’s ‘Shady’ Conduct Hindered Probe, Investigators Say
September 12, 2015 San Francisco Chronicle

Deal Requires State Workers to Pay Ahead for Retiree Health Care
September 1, 2015 The Sacramento Bee

State Government Union Reaches Deal on Retiree Healthcare
September 1, 2015 Los Angeles Times

California State Engineers Reach Contract Deal With Jerry Brown
August 31, 2015 The Sacramento Bee

Despite Vehicle-Tracking System, Caltrans Employees Speeding More
Sacramento Bee

Breaking Trust by Art Duffy
August 21, 2015 San Francisco Chronicle Letters to the Editor

Letters: Taxes Wasted on No-Bid Contracts
August 15, 2015 Orange County Register

Brown’s Retiree Health Care Proposal Stalls
August 13, 2015 Capital Public Radio

CalPERS Investments Are Solid by Cathrina Barros
August 8, 2015 The Sacramento Bee Letters to the Editor

Pensions, Contracts on August Agenda
The Sacramento Bee

Jerry Brown, Employee Unions Set to Tangle Over Health Insurance
January 25, 2015 The Sacramento Bee

2014 News of Note Archive

Caltrans Outfits Fleet With High-Tech Devices
October 10, 2014 The Sacramento Bee

What California State Workers Earn: Engineers
June 26, 2014 The Sacramento Bee

Hearing Date Set for California Civil Engineers’ Furlough Case
June 23, 2014 The Sacramento Bee