In summary

A recent report found that more than two-thirds of state employees in California are given sub-living wages and can’t afford to raise a family. Despite their important work keeping the state functioning, some rely on a second job or public assistance.

Guest Commentary written by

Manuel Hurtado

Manuel Hurtado

Manuel Hurtado is a member of SEIU Local 1000, a union representing state employees, and lives in the East Bay.

When I left college, my ambition was modest. I knew that I wanted to do something that helped Californians, and that I wanted a steady job that would enable me to support myself and help out my family.

Today, I work for the the state’s housing agency and the team at my data unit is working to help address one of California’s most critical issues. We’re not big shots or decision-makers, but the work we do makes a difference.

I grew up in California, the son of undocumented working parents in a poor neighborhood, and I know that this state’s housing crisis is taking a heavy toll. Even though I am still a young man, I can see that life on those streets is tougher than it was when I was a kid. We didn’t see many homeless people back then. It seems so widespread now. This is what the punishing cost of living is doing to people in California – even state employees, whose jobs make the state function everyday.

Like thousands of state workers – those who serve the vulnerable in hospitals and veterans homes, those who coordinate emergency recovery efforts, those who look after our waterways and public lands, those who help families access disability benefits – I know that my work matters.

But in far too many cases today, these are not jobs that make it possible for workers to support themselves and their families. To an alarming degree, the state is helping to create the very problems Californians expect it to address by paying wages so low that many workers have to rely on public assistance just to get by.

In a report released last month, economists at UC Berkeley found that more than two-thirds of state employees do not earn enough to support themselves and a child, and that more than a third do not earn enough to support a family of four – even if their partner has a job that pays the same wages.

The researchers found that sub-living wages are being paid to all state building and maintenance workers, 80% of those who work in healthcare support, and 77% who work in office and administrative jobs. Women, Black and Latino workers are overrepresented in state government jobs that do not pay living wages, too.

In my case, the job I hold requires a college degree. The original salary for my position, which was created in 1978, would be $75,000 annually if adjusted for inflation. My actual pay is only about three-quarters of that.

My mom still works a graveyard shift. My dad needs help with medical bills. I can’t help them like I wanted to.

Many state workers are worse off. They are paid so little that some have to rely on second jobs, public assistance and food banks to make ends meet.

Over the last decade, the median inflation-adjusted pay for state employees has actually fallen by about 1%. Over the same time period, the state budget has soared by an inflation-adjusted 69%. 

At a time when California’s economy is poised to become the fourth-largest in the world and the state government has amassed a $22 billion reserve fund, California is allowing its workforce to wither.

I like my job. My coworkers and I know that the work we do has value in shaping the reforms California needs to tackle its housing crisis. This is what I studied and planned for. I could have sought a private-sector job with a higher salary instead, but like my colleagues, I am dedicated to serving the people of California.

I still want to work to help Californians. Thousands of my fellow state workers are doing that every day, in so many places, in so many ways. These workers take care of our communities. The state should be paying them enough so they can take care of themselves.

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