California paid a psychiatrist $822,000 last year

The Golden State has some very highly paid employees, but that's not the whole story

Topics: Psychiatry, Health Care, California, Government, State government, ,

Who’s allowed to be greedy?

While progressives rail against CEOs’ seven-, eight- and nine-figure pay packages, Republicans reliably attack unions and the far more meager salaries of public sector workers. Public vs. private sector pay is a charged and unresolved partisan issue, but a few state employees who abuse the system or get lucky can be a more potent talking point for conservatives than more fundamental problems in how states take in and spend money.

While workers in Michigan fight to maintain union protections, Bloomberg has a scathing piece that illustrates how public sector unions in California are draining state coffers. While the piece, the first of a six-part series on state payrolls (Drool!), could provide plenty of fodder to Tea Party types, the takeaway is more complex than the usual left-right tug-of-war:

Payroll data compiled by Bloomberg on 1.4 million public employees in the 12 most populous states show that California has set a pattern of lax management, inefficient operations and out-of-control costs. From coast to coast, states are cutting funding for schools, public safety and the poor as they struggle with fallout left by politicians who made pay-and-pension promises that taxpayers couldn’t afford.

The story homes in on state psychiatrists:

Mohammad Safi, graduate of a medical school in Afghanistan, collected $822,302 last year, up from $90,682 when he started in 2006, the data show. …

Last year, 16 psychiatrists on California’s payroll, including Safi, made more than $400,000. Only one did in any other state in the data compiled by Bloomberg, a doctor in Texas. Safi earned more than twice as much as any state psychiatrist elsewhere, the data show.

Now, my father is a psychiatrist and so is my sister. I generally wish the profession good fortune. But to put Safi’s pay into perspective, a Manhattan shrink who sees 40 patients a week 52 weeks a year at $300 per session would gross $624,000.

Safi and other well-paid psychiatrists, however, don’t represent California public workers as a whole. According to Bloomberg, the average pay of a California state worker was $60,317 in 2011, the highest out of the 12 most populous states. Next came New York at $55,650. Georgia paid state employees an average of $28,682.

And the highest-paid state employees? They’re frequently football and basketball coaches, earning several times the pay of governors and university presidents.

Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.

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