For instance, during a wage freeze for plumbers in the 1970s, Lazarus says, the city placated its union by creating a premium payment many plumbers were likely to receive — a bonus for working around sewage. This "excrement increment," as it was known, functioned as a back-door raise.

"Now, every plumber doesn't work around raw sewage every hour, so there's some justification for it," he says. "But it was really to get around a wage freeze in the formula." Today, some unionized trade workers still receive a premium for working around sewage.

When it comes to odd categories of pay, there's no end to the quirky bonuses that can be found in the city's 32 contracts with various unions. Mechanics get a $1.20 per hour premium for repairing tires, and an extra $1.25 per hour for repairing fire-truck tires. Painters get an additional 75 cents per hour while applying epoxy, and 50 cents per hour while using sandblasting equipment.

Andrew Clark, a stationary engineer at the Southeast sewage treatment plant, earns an extra 7.5 percent of his salary for holding required licenses in 
emergency training.
Frank Gaglione
Andrew Clark, a stationary engineer at the Southeast sewage treatment plant, earns an extra 7.5 percent of his salary for holding required licenses in emergency training.
Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White earned an extra $16,784 in 2010 through the department’s premium for education or experience.
Courtesy of the SFFD
Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White earned an extra $16,784 in 2010 through the department’s premium for education or experience.

"Some of these things are just layered from an older bargaining history, when we bargained that stuff because we had nothing else to bargain," Lazarus says. "We do all these things for cutting back overtime. That's kind of been the public focus, without looking behind all these work-condition payments ... it's just layer upon layer, and it really needs to be looked at."

The persistence of odd bonuses, in and of itself, is less of a financial drain on the city than the ways in which some of the most common forms of premium pay have grown more costly. (The Superior Court's word-processing premium accounted for only $1,856 in pay in 2010, according to court spokeswoman Ann Donlan.) Since the advent of collective bargaining, unions have succeeded in enlarging their members' returns on existing premium payments. For instance, they have negotiated to have many premiums changed from a flat dollar payment to a percentage of an employee's salary, allowing the bonuses to gradually increase as their recipients get raises.

The fire department's education and training premium is a good example. For years, the premium applied only to those with a degree in fire science, and comprised a biweekly payment of a specific amount. According to a 1999 report by the Board of Supervisors' budget analyst, only 8 percent of department employees were eligible, and the payment amounted to less than 1 percent of their salaries.

The same year, however, the premium was extended to those with 10 years of time in the department, putting it within reach of 70 percent of firefighters. It was simultaneously changed to the current 6 percent of a recipient's salary. As a result, its cost to the city skyrocketed.

While it accounts for a significant portion of the city's labor costs, premium pay isn't unique to San Francisco or even to the public sector. Dan Mitchell, a professor emeritus of public policy and management at UCLA, says that work-condition bonuses are common in union contracts, even with private employers. Railroad companies used to pay their technicians a premium for carrying walkie-talkies, Mitchell says, in the days when the devices were large and heavy.

Even those in management defend some premium payments, arguing that they serve a straightforward purpose. Standby pay, while perhaps unfamiliar to many who work for nongovernment employers, is a standard practice at private organizations — like hospitals — that provide public services. For such organizations, the need to ensure that doctors, cops, firefighters, or utility workers are available around the clock carries significantly higher stakes than for a restaurant or newspaper. Special pay for graveyard shifts and weekends serves the same purpose.

"You have to have it in order to be able to staff these [undesirable] shifts. People just won't do it without it," Jean Ann Seago, a former Kaiser Permanente manager who now teaches at the UCSF School of Nursing, says of the various pay premiums for night and weekend shifts. "There are places without unions I've worked. They still have [premium pay], it's just not as good. ... Hospitals are 24/7, and nurses are the ones who have to be there."

Mitchell says the important question is whether, when premiums are included in an employee's wages, the resulting salary is fair. "Regardless of what the components are," he says, "what does the total look like?"

This is the question that has bedeviled analysts of cities' pay practices, both bonuses and salaries. Some jobs have no easy point of comparison in the private sector. Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at UC Berkeley, says her research shows that public employees are actually underpaid compared to their private counterparts, though they have better benefits. But she says the comparison breaks down for some workers, such as those in public-safety jobs.

"The idea of pay is really tricky. We don't really have firemen in the private sector, so we can't do a one-on-one comparison," she says. "What is responsible pay for a firefighter? You couldn't pay me enough to work as a policeman in Oakland."

Many would probably say the same thing about Ray Jackson's job. Jackson, a large man with brown eyes and a few days' growth of beard, is a plumber employed at the same sewage-treatment facility in the Bayview where Andrew Clark works. He makes a good living — $90,000 a year in base wages, which comes to $95,000 when other forms of compensation, including premiums, are added in. That's well above San Francisco's median household income of $73,000, which is itself $12,000 above the statewide average.

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