Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is seeking roughly a 25% cut in the pay that city civilian workers receive while on injury leave, an unusually generous benefit that critics say has contributed to increasing taxpayer costs.
In an interview, Garcetti confirmed that injury-leave pay is one of several areas — along with healthcare and pension costs — where the city is seeking concessions from labor.
Union representatives are defending the current injury-pay formula, saying the city should not penalize workers when they are hurt.
Garcetti, however, said compensation for job-related injury claims "has to be negotiated at the table."
"All of us want a common-sense solution where people don't have an extra incentive to stay away," the mayor said Thursday, shortly after being briefed on labor contract talks. "It's lost productivity, and if you can make more money not being at work, it invites abuse, even though I think most people have legitimate claims."
He declined to discuss his proposal in detail, citing the confidentiality of the bargaining process. He acknowledged that the possibility of reductions is not something "many unions have been eager to even entertain."
An administration sourceconfirmed that the mayor proposed reducing the tax-free pay that non-sworn workers collect on injury leave — from the current 90% for up to a year to about 66%, the state-required minimum.
The higher city benefit has meant that most custodians, gardeners, office managers and other non-public-safety workers take home substantially more money while absent recovering from injuries than when working. Under state law, police and firefighters get 100% of their salaries tax-free for up to a year while on job-related injury leave.
A Times investigation last month found that the cost to taxpayers for injury leave involving the city's civilian employees rose 50% in the five years that ended in January, to $18 million.
Officials said there's no evidence that the jobs became significantly more dangerous during that period. But city data show that the average length of the leaves climbed from just under seven weeks in 2009 to 10 1/2 weeks in 2013. Los Angeles County, which pays its civilian employees less on injury leave, had far lower rates of claims and absences, The Times found.
After the report was published in December, Garcetti said he would explore ways to change the injury-pay policy, which is written into more than a dozen city union contracts. The cut being sought by the mayor would save the city about $5 million per year, according to a 2013 audit.
Cheryl Parisi, chair of the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, which includes groups negotiating new labor contracts, defended the current leave benefit.
"Workers should not be penalized when they're injured as a result of their service to the City of Los Angeles," Parisi wrote in an email to The Times. "The current policy allows for injured workers to recover and return to work without threat of losing their home or falling behind on bills."
Parisi said that if the city wants to cut injury leave costs, it should fund an "effective workers' safety program" and make sure light-duty options are offered to employees unable to perform their normal jobs.
One measure of the sensitivity of the issue came in an email circulated last week to some city union members and obtained by The Times. It was written by a negotiating team member for a union that represents city civilian employees. The message cites a list of demands from the mayor, including the proposed cuts to injury leave compensation, and raises the possibility of a strike that the writer says would leave garbage on the streets, snarl freeway traffic and disrupt flights at LAX.
The author, Rafe Garcia, a member of a Service Employees International Union bargaining team, characterized the message, sent Thursday from a private email account, as a poll to assess interest in a walkout. It appeared to be a reaction to stalled contract talks.
Garcetti's comments, combined with the email, opened a window on both the city's normally secretive bargaining talks and the ongoing challenges facing a mayor with a sometimes chilly relationship with L.A.'s powerful unions representing city workers.
Garcia's message said he was writing on his own behalf to gauge union members' appetite for a dramatic, wide-ranging job action. "This will not be your Daddy's strike," he wrote. The email questioned how the mayor's "penny smart" reputation would fare if a strike by city workers led to major problems for the shipping and travel industries.
Garcia suggested that Instead of "languishing in the hot sun" behind picket lines, city workers could snarl traffic in downtown near City Hall and on the freeways leading to and from the Port of Los Angeles and LAX — both of which are staffed by thousands of city workers.
He also predicted "classic mayhem" if rotting trash piled up on city streets because sanitation department workers refused to pick it up. He cautioned recipients to forward the message discreetly, sharing it only with trusted co-workers. "Silence is golden," the message said.
Coral Itzcalli, spokeswoman for SEIU Local 721, which represents thousands of city workers, stressed that the message was not an official union communication and said it doesn't represent the union's position in negotiations with the mayor.
"He isn't speaking for anyone," Itzcalli said. "The workers are talking to each other."
Jeff Millman, the mayor's spokesman, said the email echoes threats the administration has heard from rank-and-file employees but said he does not believe it represents the intentions of SEIU's leaders.
Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.