Being a forensic clinical psychologist who has chosen to work, at Atascadero State Hospital, with “Sexually Violent Predators,” as well as other mentally disordered forensic patients, I have counted on the CalPers retirement to make up the core of my retirement planning. I chose to work with the forensic population for the simple reason that I found it interesting to work with mentally disordered criminal offenders and especially with the “Sexually Violent Predators,” who have been committed. I wanted to work with a group of people for whom many professionals find it difficult to provide treatment. I have found existential meaning in this work because 1) I am helping to assess whether or not these people are safe to return to the community; and, 2) I am helping people who otherwise would be pushed to the absolute margins of society and perhaps re-offend due to their social alienation. Ultimately, I have wanted to provide treatment to these folks so that in some small way I can contribute to the safety of my state.
Yet, I work for about two thirds of what my peers, in similar settings across the nation, earn for their work. I work for about 30 to 40 percent less than what other psychologists in private practice make. Even more concerning is that I currently earn about what my peers’ median salary was in 1995. I have lost pay raises because I have topped out and the 5 percent pay raise we were to be given two years ago was withdrawn and/or sucked up by increased costs for medical insurance. We psychologists in public service, caring for the worst of the worst sex offenders and dangerous mentally disordered criminals don’t even receive retention and recruitment bonuses.
Now! Now, I am being told that Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to “starve the monster,” by destroying my retirement, for the simple reason that he wants to destroy CalPers’ influence upon corrupt corporations such as Enron. As the issue is described in the print media, I am going to have to pay 100 percent more in my contribution to the health plan. I am likely to lose my safety retirement, due to the governor’s plan to 1) create a two tier retirement system after 2007; and, 2) the incentives he would give current CalPers enrollees would provide a short term benefit, but would destroy the base of the current retirement system that I have counted upon. It is likely that I and those public employees, who work for essential public services in circumstances in which being killed is a distinct possibility, are being asked to carry the burden of an obscene deficit on our own backs. I work with patients, who would kill me if they weren’t afraid of a third strike (they have told me this to my face). Further, I am not in a secured setting like a prison; I work amidst the forensic patients and the SVP patients; and if my fellow employees fail to look out for each other and me, I or someone else could die. That safety retirement, i.e., combat pay, was going to enable me to build a decent retirement over the next 10 years. It made working in a high risk environment more palatable. The safety retirement was going to form the core of my retirement.
Now, I see this overly affluent, blatantly ostentatious, action-adventure, Austrian-actor, with more money than he knows how to spend, taking action against the security of my and my wife’s future! I am livid. And what galls me is that I voted for him and that the California taxpayer will go for this plan (referendum) because the solution to the budget deficit will be paid off the backs of California public employees, rather than raising taxes so everyone pays their fair share of the costs of Gray Davis’ caving to power companies. I feel betrayed.
The day my pension is changed is the day I leave my public sector job and return to the private sector, in another state. I will have to do so because I will need to increase my income and pay into IRAs at a staggering pace, to secure any retirement security. This state promised me something for working with people for whom few psychologists are willing or capable of providing decent assessment and psychological care. Now the governor wants to renege upon this promise!
I am so irreducibly incensed that I want to rage against the dying of my future plans and those of my fellow public employees. But then I brace myself to reality and ask what can I do? What can the few hundred thousands of public employees do to assist the governor to admit to the heartbreaking changes in lifestyle that his political—not truly fiscal—attack upon CalPers will necessitate. We are out numbered by the other California voters, who don’t care about the retirement of police officers, firemen, nurses, physicians, paramedics, social workers, parole officers and psychologists. Consequently, when the governor calls for a referendum, we public employees are likely to suffer—as are our families and our futures. Being powerless as one stands in front of a steamroller is deeply distressing.
Yesterday, I spoke with several of my colleagues and each of them—well the seven of them—said they would leave state service if what Arnold Schwarzenegger wants is passed by the legislature and/or voted for, through a referendum, by the people of California.
If the governor and the Department of Mental Health believe they are going to keep quality professionals at DMH, when they threaten our retirement security, they are wrong. Here at ASH, just since I have been here, there has been nearly a 55 percent turnover rate of psychologists. And that turn over rate has been with the current CalPers system! Further, we find it difficult to recruit and retain psychologists, as things now stand. We have had as many as six to eight unfilled psychologist positions for as long as a year. And that has occurred with the current pension and medical insurance benefits. Who are you going to employ, if CalPers is destroyed?
I am 52 years old. I can’t go anywhere else and obtain a reasonable retirement in the time left in my professional practice. I don’t even have the time to build up my IRAs to meet the shortfall that will occur if Schwarzenegger sabotages my pension. So, it seems I will be working for many more years than I had expected (but not for the State of California).
Finally, if the governor and his ilk in state government do offer so-called golden incentives for people to leave the CalPers pension, those of us who have counted upon it will lose everything because the incentives will draw down the support base. People always go for the cash in the pocket now instead of thinking ahead and instead of supporting their community of fellow workers. I see a maelstrom ahead and I am angry. More, I am apprehensive regarding my future and the future of California’s public employees, who provide necessary services. I feel betrayed. Does anyone else feel betrayed by this governor?
Warren E. Icke is a clinical forensic psychologist at Atascadero State Hospital.o