When pharmacist Craig Winter spoke before Ventura County’s pension board two months ago, he put the issue of which types of pay should count for pensions in quantifiable terms.
The base wage published in job listings is a portion of what pharmacists earn at Ventura County Medical Center, he told the Board of Retirement. After the addition of bonuses for advanced degrees, shift differentials and recruiting premiums for the hard-to-fill slots, pharmacists make 27 percent to 39 percent above the base, he said.
In his view, the pay used in the calculation of pensions should be what people actually make, not the lower base wage, which would result in a smaller pension.
“Make the pensionable compensation based on the normal rate of pay, not their base pay,” he told the panel.
The board administering the county’s $3.4 billion pension fund narrowly agreed to include a variety of supplements in the compensation, in keeping with the arguments of Winter and labor unions. The vote excludes only those expressly prohibited in a new state law aimed at curtailing spiking.
That opinion would increase public costs, but union lawyers argue that is what lawmakers intended when they hurriedly enacted a state pension law that took effect in January.
Managers of county government, the biggest employer in the pension system, have argued that only base wages count. But they are evaluating what could be rolled into that definition but would still comply with the law.
County Executive Officer Mike Powers has asked for a delay of at least 60 days to complete that exercise, saying it may require labor negotiations.
The retirement board is set to take up Powers’ request for the reprieve Monday. If granted, it would be the second delay — the board delayed the original decision until Feb. 15 to get more clarifications on base pay.
Payroll records obtained in a public records request by The Star showed the gap is as much as Winter described.
Of 13 senior-level pharmacists, all but one received a recruiting premium granted to select, hard-to-hire health care workers. The premium pushes the top base pay rate published on the county’s website to a range of $63 to $75 an hour from $52.27 an hour. Overtime is based on the premium plus base pay.
With bonuses paid for advanced degrees not required for the job, shift differentials, a health insurance benefit paid in cash and a retirement contribution made by the employer, the final compensation that counts for retirement grows by $29,000 to $87,000 above the base salary. That’s 27 percent to 80 percent more than the base pay of $108,735 for nine people who worked full time throughout 2012. They averaged 47 percent above the base, a difference of almost $51,000. The calculation excludes overtime.
The recruiting premiums date to 2001, when the Board of Supervisors approved paying premiums of up to $20 an hour for pharmacists and $10 for pharmacy technicians. Those rates rose in a subsequent labor agreement to a maximum of $25 an hour for pharmacists and $15 for technicians. Other hard-to-fill jobs, such as respiratory and physical therapists, also qualify for recruiting premiums.
Hospital administrator Cyndie Cole said the rates are necessary to make the medical center competitive in the chase for qualified professionals. Surveys are done annually to make sure they remain justified, she said.
“It’s not a give,” Cole said.
The pharmacists’ premium is based on pay in a market survey of hospitals with 175 to 300 beds conducted by the Hospital Association of Southern California, Cole said. The hospitals pay a median wage of $65.49 an hour, with the wage for half of the 30 hospitals falling below that point and half above it. She put the Ventura County Medical Center median at $66.90 an hour.
A survey by the state Employment Development Department showed a median rate of $57.48 an hour for pharmacists in Ventura County, but Cole said the hospital survey makes for a better apples-to-apples comparison.
Hospital officials said they instituted the market-based premium at a time when they could not fill vacancies.
“This absolutely stabilized our pharmacy,” Cole said. “We were able to hire people and retain them.”
Without it, the hospital might have to hire pharmacists from a registry for $100 to $110 an hour, she said.
Powers, who managed Ventura County Medical Center in the early 2000s, said one-third to one-half of the slots for pharmacists were empty.
But taxpayer advocates say the market-based premium should have gone in the base so the pay range was known. That change could come out of labor negotiations with the Service Employees International Union as Powers seeks to bridge the dispute with the retirement board while complying with the pension law.
“We’re evaluating that right now,” he said. “That is one specific thing we’re looking at, and we’re talking to the union about it, too.”
The Ventura County Taxpayers Association supports the county’s official view that only base wages should count for pensions and not the bonuses that count for existing employees. Payroll records obtained by the association showed an array of pay bonuses have increased the final compensation that counts for pensions across much of the workforce.
Among the items the association has targeted are education bonuses, which are not required to qualify for a position although they may enhance someone’s abilities. Chairman David Grau, though, said the group does not object to including the market-based premium.
“We think it should be rolled into base pay,” he said.
Grau said at the pension board meeting in December that the taxpayers association, which has obtained compensation records for scores of employees, had no knowledge of the benefit. But Powers said the county has not hidden it, adding that it appears in a labor contract and was approved by the Board of Supervisors at a public meeting in 2001. Although the premium is not listed on the job listing for pharmacist, it is in recruiting documents whenever the job comes open, Cole said.
Winter, 48, has worked at Ventura County Medical Center for 3½ years. He would not lose benefits because he was hired before Jan. 1, when the law took effect. But he says he would be affected if it produced higher turnover among newly hired pharmacists.
The Board of Retirement will meet at 9 a.m. Monday at its headquarters, 1190 S. Victoria Ave. in Ventura.