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A mea culpa to those 'overpaid' L.A. port workers

December 05, 2012|By Paul Whitefield
  • Work resumed at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Wednesday after a strike that crippled America's busiest shipping hub for more than a week was resolved.
Work resumed at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Wednesday after… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Clerks who make $165,000 a year? That’s outrageous!

So, how much do you make?

It’s not a question one asks in polite conversation. But for the striking clerical workers at the Los Angeles ports, who agreed to a tentative deal to end their strike late Tuesday, their total compensation became front-page news: an average of $165,000.

Except.

Did you read that sentence carefully? Did you notice the words “total compensation”? That’s right. Sometimes it pays to read the fine print.

When the clerical workers went on strike last week, I have to admit I too was surprised when I read that folks in a job requiring a high school education could be making $165,000 a year, and had turned down an offer that would net them $195,000 a year, plus 11 weeks or so of vacation and other benefits.

Many commenters on our stories were, shall we say, less than kind to the “greedy” workers and their union.

Except.

We all jumped the gun. And here’s why, from The Times’ story Wednesday: 

The workers don't have ordinary clerk and secretarial jobs. They are logistics experts who process a massive flow of information on the content of ships' cargo containers and their destinations.

The clerical workers, among the highest-paid in the country, are responsible for booking cargo, filing customs documentation, and monitoring and tracking cargo movements.

According to union officials and the Harbor Employers Assn., the average hourly rate for clerical workers is $40.50 -- which amounts to about $84,000 a year. In comparison, the median annual wage for cargo and freight agents was $37,150 in May 2010, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

So, OK, these folks are paid pretty well, even compared to their peers in other places. But greedy and overpaid? Please. (If you want a more detailed analysis of the strike and its costs, check out my colleague Michael Hiltzik’s column Wednesday.) 

Because here’s the bottom line: How do you know your compensation isn’t just as high, or even higher, than the port workers?

When I’m asked what I make, I put down my salary. If I have to, I can figure it out by the hour. I’ll bet you do the same.

But your salary isn’t your total compensation. Your employer undoubtedly knows what that figure is -- it includes things like healthcare, pension contributions, time off and other benefits. But I’m willing to bet you don’t have a clue what your number is. I know I don’t.

We just know what we “make” -- by which we mean, what it says on our paychecks. Which isn’t our “total compensation.”

Now, newspaper people often hear this plea from readers: Just give us the facts; we don’t want your opinion.

And people also often say: Numbers don’t lie. 

Well, now you have the facts. And now you can see that although numbers may not lie, in this case, they certainly can lead you to the wrong conclusion.

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