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L.A. County union approves new contract agreement

After months of contentious negotiations that culminated in a strike by county social workers in December, Los Angeles County employees represented by Service Employees International Union Local 721 voted to approve a new labor agreement.

The union's members have been voting on the proposed deal over the past three weeks, and polling ended Wednesday evening. SEIU is the county's largest public employee union, representing about 55,000 county workers including nurses, social workers and public works staff. According to the union, 95% of those who voted supported the agreement.

The deal includes a 6% raise over three years, an additional $200,000 to be contributed by the county to a rideshare subsidy program, and an agreement to hire 450 children's social workers by October. The Department of Children and Family Services had already begun the hiring process for some of those positions last year and as of last month, reported it had hired 145 social workers and made conditional offers to about 200.

The county will also increase its contribution to employee healthcare plans by 7.2% to cover rising premiums, and will contribute an extra $500 to each worker's flexible benefits plan over the next year.

Social workers' high caseloads were a major issue in negotiations, resulting in the first strike by county workers in more than a decade. Social workers walked picket lines for six days. Seven people were arrested for an act of civil disobedience during a protest on the last day of the strike.

Almira Garza, an emergency response social worker who was one of those arrested, said she was pleased with the outcome of the negotiations.

"I feel a little safer — I feel like things are a little brighter because we have this contract," she said.

The timing of the pay increase had been one of the last lingering issues. SEIU wanted the raise to be retroactive to October, when the previous agreements expired, but county officials said that would be unfair to other labor organizations that negotiated their contracts sooner.

The deal approved by SEIU's members would make the raise retroactive to Dec. 13, when the county and union first struck a tentative deal. The pay increase will be the first the workers have received since 2009.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is slated to vote to approve the deal at its Feb. 25 meeting, county spokesman David Sommers said.

Although not technically part of the contract negotiations, county labor groups and management also came to loggerheads over a county proposal to reduce retiree healthcare benefits.

They have come to a tentative deal that would leave current employees' retirement benefits unchanged but would reduce the county's costs for future employees. Under the proposal, the county will continue to cover 100% of retiree health premiums under the Anthem Blue Cross plan for those who worked for the county 25 years or more. The county will no longer cover the cost for spouses or the full cost of more expensive plans.

The deal must also be approved by the board of the agency overseeing county employee retirement benefits.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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