Unemployment spikes, while the boss rakes in millions.
Thursday, May 5, 2011
A friend who works for Monterey County government describes the atmosphere around his office these days: “Nobody’s making a lot of eye contact right now. There are a lot of whispered conversations. There’s a lot of, ‘Has so-and so talked to you? No? So-and-so hasn’t talked to you? That’s great, because if so-and-so hasn’t talked to you yet, you’re probably not being laid off.’”
Who so-and-so is depends on the department where you work. Plug in the name of any one of dozens of human resources representatives; if so-and-so is coming your way with a sympathetic look on his or her face, chances are you might be packing your desk that afternoon. In all, more than 300 county employees will be having that chat with so-and-so.
At the city of Salinas, meanwhile, layoff season launched on Tuesday, with 52 employees on the receiving end of some so-and-so’s delivery. Of those 52, 22 are sworn officers from the Salinas Police Department, and nine others are civilian employees of the department – the losses, says Police Chief Louis Fetherolf, will be crippling.
And then there’s Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, where hospital president and CEO Sam Downing just said goodbye to his $668,000-a-year salary – and hello to a $150,000-a-year pension. For 40 years of service that saw the hospital develop important partnerships, like the one with Stanford Hospital that brought a world-class heart center to Salinas, $150k seems reasonable.
Far less reasonable, though, in a story broken by the Los Angeles Times, is the estimated $3.9 million in supplemental retirement benefits Downing’s former board of directors voted to give him. Cash! Health care for life! Fabulous prizes! Brought to you courtesy of Downing’s board buddies, Jim Gattis (real estate developer), Harry Wardwell (banker) and Nathan Olivas (ag businessman). I’m extrapolating here, because I don’t know if it was a 5-0 vote, but it’s a fair guess that the other board members, Patrick Egan (high school teacher) and Deborah Nelson (nurse), at least raised a whimper of opposition to the package. Regular working folks tend to be like that.
“THE SENIOR ADMINISTRATION GETS MEDICAL CARE FOR LIFE. THE WORKERS GET SHOWN THE DOOR.”
But all of them – Downing included – should have a sit-down with another friend of mine, a non-union member who, after closing in on two decades of work he loved doing at Memorial, was shown the door last Friday without so much as a thank you. No insurance, no pension, just a few thousand dollars (and by a few, I mean, far less than $10,000) to walk away, handed to him with an attitude of “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” They offered to let him stay until the third week of May, but had he done so, he would have left without those few thousand dollars, and he’s going to need that money. He has two daughters for whom he is the sole support, no more medical insurance, and he had to put some gas in the tank on Friday so he could drive down to the county and file for unemployment – something he’s never done in his life. He’s also going to have to drive his daughters down to the county and get them on Medi-Cal. Food stamps are a distinct possibility too.
He describes the atmosphere at the hospital as unsettling. Nobody is eating in the cafeteria. Like the county, it’s become a place of no eye contact and whispered conversations.
“The mood with the people who are left is, ‘Is this a place we want to stay? Is this somewhere we want to be when all is said and done? Am I going to be next?’” he says. “We all understand the economics of business, but things just seemed to fall apart.
“The senior administration gets medical care for life, the worker bees get shown the door,” he adds. “It’s absolutely devastating. I thought this was the last job I was going to have.”
These types of egregious payouts happen when nobody pays attention. Fortunately, the Times has become expert in these types of stories, recently winning a Pulitzer Prize for blowing open the that scandal plagued government and the overpaid officials of the tiny city of Bell.
And because the Times paid attention, now the state government is paying attention. Assemblyman Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville) has proposed an audit of the hospital district, calling the Downing payout “unconscionable” and questioning the seemingly cozy relationships the board members’ various interests (Rabobank, the California Air Show) enjoy with the hospital. Joining him in the audit demand is Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-San Bernardino), who says the taxpayers deserve to know how something like the Downing package could happen.
Hospital spokeswoman Adrienne Laurent says Alejo should have just called; the board would have clarified it for him.
And if you believe that, you probably believe in fairy tales and the myth that a powerful board acted transparently as well.
MARY DUAN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at email@example.com.