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Then again, Jackson's job is different from those of most people. He repairs pipes that conduct the flow of human excrement in enclosed rooms where the odors of sewage compete with those of noxious chemicals. The odor is so bad that he wears a full-face respirator that resembles the gas masks worn by biohazard responders.
Even the mask and his gloves don't always keep the germs out. Despite his efforts not to touch his face or lick his lips while on the job — condensation from the steaming sewage pipes can settle on a person's skin — Jackson has contracted both work-related pneumonia and a staph infection during his time at the Southeast plant. "Every now and then, you'll get diarrhea for no reason," he says.
On a recent weekday morning, he clambers over an iron grating that stretches above a viscous, tar-colored pit of sludge. Corroded pipes dip from the low ceiling, and the hum of conveyor belts and centrifuges — separating solid from liquid before wastewater is expelled into the bay —creates a heavy, constant din.
"I do like working here," he says, although he worries "about bringing anything home to my wife and my kids and my grandkids." When Jackson's granddaughter was born in December, he traveled straight to the hospital from work but was unable to hold her because of the risk of infecting the newborn with sewer-borne bacteria.
"It's sort of like The Time Machine," says Larry Spillane, the plant's maintenance superintendent, referring to H.G. Wells' 1895 story of a futuristic society in which a subhuman species, the Morlocks, toils beneath the ground to create a paradise blithely enjoyed by another group, the Eloi. "Sometimes we feel like we're the Morlocks, under the city keeping things ticking, so people can flush their toilets."
The debate over public employees' compensation has tended to cast its characters as either Eloi or Morlocks, as one privileged class versus another group that's being had. (By the way, Wells' fictional time traveler eventually discovers that the Morlocks are exploiting the Eloi by raising them for slaughter, like cattle.) Some think that it is government workers who are benefiting on the backs of taxpayers wounded in the recession, while others argue that criticisms of unions are an assault on the hard-working people who make a city run.
Premium pay is rightly treated as a topic separate from this argument. It's not about whether public employees work hard. It's about a substantial program of cash entitlements that in many ways no longer seems fair.
Take Jackson. The interesting thing about his situation is that for working in conditions from which most people would recoil, he receives a relatively minuscule "premium" — just $3 a day is doled out through the city's "wastewater treatment facility assignment" bonus. A much bigger source of income for him is something that every city-paid plumber gets, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant their jobs are: a 3 percent premium for possessing a certificate in backflow prevention. Everyone has the certificate, and everyone gets the bonus.
In other words, San Francisco's system of premium pay offers Jackson a paltry reward for the travails of unusually demanding work, while paying him a hefty bonus for a certification held by every other plumber in the city. That's not to mention the 7.5 percent bonus that goes to Clark, his boss, or the millions a year delivered to fire-engine-driving firefighters. For anyone convinced of both the dignity of labor and fairness in compensation — that old liberal principle of equal pay for equal work — it's hard to conclude that the current way of doing things makes sense.