But even as their unions were criticizing the unpaid days off, thousands of state workers continued to collect hundreds of millions of dollars a year in contractually negotiated bonuses and other types of extra payments, on top of overtime and regular pay raises, according to a review by The Associated Press.
The add-ons have been part of the state's compensation system for decades, and the costs have been rising steadily in the last five years.
The total cost reached $516 million in 2012, up from $373 million in 2008. The money was distributed among 95,705 employees who took on special duties or skills affiliated with their jobs, according to five years of California pay records for 250,000 state employees requested by the AP. The costs have gone up in part because of dozens of new categories the state was required to add by federal court receivers overseeing the state's troubled prison system.
The average payout in 2012 was $5,382 per employee for those who received extra pay, a 17 percent increase over the previous year and a 39 percent increase from five years earlier. The most extra pay received by one worker was nearly $531,000 for a senior psychiatrist at a state mental hospital, nearly double his annual salary.
The payouts have been part of collective bargaining for many years, but some categories seem to reward work or skills that are part of the job the employee was hired to do.
California has more than 325 types of special pay for a range of skills, certifications or benchmarks. The category includes bonuses, incentive pay, retention pay and pay differentials. The money is awarded for such things as knowing multiple languages, holding a college degree, riding a motorcycle on the job or, in some cases, just for sticking around.
State workers also can receive special pay for obtaining a credential, driving the office carpool, taking dictation or working on deadline. Some examples include:
A $1,000 bonus for parking attendants at the state Department of Food and Agriculture, a perk negotiated by the Teamsters Union.
$1,600 a year in "fitness incentive pay" for prison guards and psychiatric facility workers for submitting to a physical exam.
A 20 percent bonus for CalPERS investment managers who have been with the department for at least a year.
A number of the categories deal with law enforcement functions, including several for California Highway Patrol officers. That includes an extra $240 a month for certain CHP officers who have a bachelor's degree, extra pay for officers who ride a motorcycle or work in a canine unit and a stipend of 3.5 percent of base pay for time spent putting on protective gear and inspecting weapons and vehicles.
Several telephone messages left with the California Highway Patrol Association were not returned.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' Association, said some of the bonus pay categories seem legitimate, such as having an additional language skill. But he questioned why they need to be separate from the employees' regular salaries.
"Why aren't the jobs described with particularity and the skill set described, and you hire people with that skill set, and that's it?" he said. "If speaking another language is another bona fide qualification for having that job, then it should be part of the job."
Patricia McConahay, a spokeswoman for CalHR, the state's human resources department, said the extra pay categories are a way to reward skills or knowledge the state needs and can help fill less desirable positions without requiring the state to constantly add or revise its more than 4,000 job descriptions.
"Not every employee in a specific job classification needs to be paid a differential. We wouldn't want to create a specific job classification for every job," she said. "Attracting people for some of these very far off locations like Susanville or Pelican Bay, that's not easy."
The number and types of extra pay have changed over the last 30 years as categories are added and removed. McConahay said during that time, about 75 special pay categories have been eliminated, most of them for recruiting or retaining staff in specific jobs. She said 15 new pay categories have been added since Gov. Jerry Brown took office in 2011.
Major changes to the practice are unlikely because the system is deeply engrained and the public employee unions that benefit are among the chief benefactors to Democrats who control state government. The state's largest public employee union, Service Employees International Union 1000, declined comment.
Employees who work in California's prison system and its state hospitals are among the biggest recipients of special pay, partly because of 34 categories the state was forced to add from 2006 to 2010 by federal court receivers based on problems with the state's prison system. Dozens of registered nurses who work in correctional facilities receive tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in bonus pay.
Four of the top five highest recipients in 2012 worked at the Salinas Valley Psychiatric Program, a mental health hospital for incarcerated men in Soledad, about 45 miles east of Monterey. The facility has a range of incentives to keep staffers on the job, including a $5,000 payment for psychiatrists who work there for six consecutive pay periods and another $5,000 for sticking around for 24 consecutive pay periods.
Ken Paglia, a spokesman for the Department of State Hospitals, said the need to staff facilities 24 hours a day and a long list of state and federal regulations also boost the pay of state hospital psychiatrists. The added pay is needed to recruit and retain qualified individuals for demanding jobs, often in remote locations, he said.
Associated Press writer Hannah Dreier in Las Vegas contributed to this report.