Tough duty: First the spill, then the minimum wage

The absence of a state budget may present yet another obstacle to those trying to clean up the Gulf oil spill.

A dozen California scientists currently working in the Gulf are slated to have their pay cut to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, according to the California Association of Professional Scientists (CAPS), which represents some 3,000 state workers.

The scientists, employees of California’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), are subject to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s order to cut state employees’ pay during the budget impasse.  Ironically, they were ordered to the Gulf by the governor.

The 3rd District Court of Appeals backed the governor’s decision last week, but State Controller John Chiang has refused to comply. He questioned the legality of the cut and said his computers are too outdated to implement a pay cut for the 200,000 state workers.  

That brought a sharp response this week from the Schwarzenegger administration.

“Since the controller continues to ignore court decisions we must again ask the court to stop him from violating the law. The courts have been clear:  in the absence of a state budget or other available appropriation, the Controller does not have the authority to continue paying regular salaries and wages,” said Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the governor.

Chiang, meanwhile, is considering his own legal action.

“Absent changes to state payroll laws and the completion of the State’s payroll system overhaul, these reductions cannot be made without violating both the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and the State Constitution, exposing taxpayers to billions of dollars in damages and fines,” controller spokesman Jacob Roper said. “Withholding pay from state employees until a budget is enacted does nothing to solve the budget deficit, but will only make it worse,” he added.

In the Gulf, OSPR has approximately 12 scientists designated to work in the Gulf in rotating shifts lasting two weeks.

 “It is hard work- emotionally and physically taxing,” says Yvonne Addassi, senior environmental scientist for OSPR.

Addassi works in a command post in Houma, La. where she evaluates over 100,000 cleanup strategies sent into a database, then executes the strategies that seem most effective. 

She oversees the staff of scientists from OSPR, who spend 15-18-hour days combing the shorelines for slick black birds and mapping out the plumes of billowing oil.

 They are responsible for assessing the magnitude of damage done to the environment and its wildlife.

 Addassi’s entire staff, herself included, will receive minimum wage under the governor’s order.

Several of Addassi’s staff already work two jobs to make ends meet. They may not be able to continue their work in the Gulf without overtime or regular pay.

Addassi says living on federal minimum wage is hard, “even when you’re not in an emergency.”

“We feel we work hard on behalf of the people of the state of California and are working hard to address this disaster.”  

Under the governor’s order, they will come home to find their checks depleted to a fifth of their usual pay rate, according to workers’ estimates.

Carol Singleton, a spokesperson for the Department of Fish and Game, which oversees OSPR in the government’s flow chart, said it has filed several claims with BP that would reimburse scientists for their time in the Gulf.  

Still, CAPS has expressed a specific concern for scientists working in the Gulf.

“Gov. Schwarzenegger had no problem taking credit for ordering dozens of scientists to work long hours in support of the Gulf oil spill cleanup,” said CAPS, which joined Chiang in opposition to the minimum-wage order. “Our members will be saddened to hear that they may come back…to a minimum wage paycheck.”

In addition to the legal wrangling between Chiang and Schwarzenegger, a CAPS staff director says they will file their own lawsuit against the state if the controller is forced to follow through with the pay cuts.

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