According to social etiquette, asking someone how much money he or she makes is a daring move. But when you are paying the person’s salary with your tax dollars, is the question more permissible?
Thanks to a database on The Sacramento Bee’s website, users can request the base salary of any worker for the state of California and have an answer within seconds.
On Mar. 4, The Bee launched its newest and highly controversial database. By entering the first and last name of a state employee, pay range, job title or agency, anyone can view the base pay of those employed by the state of California. The site also provides summaries of salaries of interest, including the top-five highest-paid state workers and the UC workers with the highest gross salary.
The database was compiled by Bee writer Phillip Reese. He used the services of a third party database company, Caspio, based in Mountain View, Calif., and had the site up and running in three weeks.
“I wanted to take a look at state pay due to the budget crisis. Plus technology makes doing something like this a lot easier than it used to be,” Reese said.
The site has had over 6 million hits since it was launched just over two months ago.
“It’s the most successful thing we’ve had on the news side,” Reese said.
The income of a state worker is public record – anyone can view it if they know where to look. Yet despite this fact, there have been outcries from some of the state employees themselves, citing privacy rights and ethical issues.
The Service Employees International Union has been against the database from the beginning. A press release posted on the union’s website states, “Since March 4, Local 1000 has received dozens of calls and e-mails from members with legitimate safety concerns. Members protected by restraining orders or victims of violence have now had their privacy invaded by a publication that was simply looking to increase circulation or traffic on its website.”
The union urged its members to call or e-mail editor Melanie Sill or public editor Armando Acuña to voice concerns.
The initial flood of e-mails and phone calls was stifling, and in the first three weeks following the release of the database, Reese received hundreds of complaints per day.
The union is still unsatisfied with the database, said spokesperson Jim Zamora.
“Union leaders didn’t decide this was an issue, it was decided for us by how many people got mad and asked us to do something,” Zamora said.
Service Employees International Union Local 1000 represents 93,000 people, most of whom are state employees. These workers are not all upper management either – they are secretaries, janitors, engineers and mail room workers.
“These are people that are not in the publiceye,” Zamora said. “But their information has been made public. They are upset that anyone you meet in a casual circumstance can punch you in and see how much you make. You could ask someone on a date, and they can go home and find out your salary.”
It is not the legality of the database the union is questioning. They recognize that The Bee is working within the parameters of the law. Though the ideal outcome for the union would be to have the laws changed, they recognize that this would be laborious and difficult, Zamora said.
“The law as it stands is on The Bee’s side,” Zamora said. “They have a legal right to do this, and we’re not questioning that. We support The Bee and its investigative efforts, but the database is something we take issue with.”
The union has received many e-mails from female union members who have been or are currently victims of domestic violence and are fearful the database will allow their attackers to find them when they’ve worked to keep a low profile.
Though there have been no reports of attacks due to the use of the database, it is the fear of the victims that concerns the union.
“We hoped that The Bee would change the database, make it harder to find someone by name, or to only list those who work middle-management jobs or higher,” Zamora said. “But they didn’t change anything. We are not satisfied.”
With members of the union and other state workers demanding answers, it was impossible for public editor Acuña to give all inquirers the personalized response they asked for. He and Sill wrote articles in response to the complaints. In an article published Mar. 5, Sill addressed the most frequently asked questions and provided an e-mail address created for comments specifically about the database.
“We do not believe we are publishing information that could not easily be obtained from other public sources,” Sill wrote in a Bee article. “State workers’ names and locations, for instance, are available online through the state government employee directory. So is other information, such as employees’ e-mail addresses, that we have not published.”
In another article written by Sill, published Mar. 18, she wrote, “In essence, the salary databases are part of the state’s checkbook register, where transactions are recorded. The owners of the checking account are California’s taxpayers.”
The Bee is not the first media organization to post a database cataloguing state workers’ salaries. Milwaukee’s Journal Sentinel has a database of Wisconsin’s state employees’ pay. Georgia and Iowa make their databases available directly.
Acuña said he hasn’t received a complaint in the past two weeks, and the initial reaction of the public was one that naturally dissipated.
“The ‘the sky is falling’ complaint is not coming to any fruition. It doesn’t have the emotional tie or reaction that was there in the beginning. Once you know that it’s there, you [are] most likely not going to go back out of curiosity again. If you go back, it will be for needed information,” he said.
Reese, the creator of the database, said he believes the database is a useful tool for the public.
“It’s not that I’m unsympathetic, but what we published was basic public information available to anyone,” he said. “I have no problem in general with making public information easier to access. I believe it is our duty as reporters to make it more accessible to the public.”
But to the union, this is an issue that remains valid. Though complaints have died down to a low buzz, Zamora said this is still a top priority for the union.
“We now recognize that we need a plan B,” he said, “but we need to figure out what that plan will be.”
ALI EDNEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. XXX