After nearly a year of negotiations, Los Angeles city officials and the unions representing 20,000 city workers still haven't reached a deal on a new contract. One group of employees has even threatened to strike. The standoff is caused, in part, by the city's determination not to approve any raises for the next three years and to implement a new pension tier that reduces retirement benefits for new hires. As Mayor Eric Garcetti and other officials have explained it, the goal is to eliminate the annual deficit that has prevented the city from investing in city services and infrastructure.
The Coalition of L.A. City Unions, which bargains on behalf of roughly half the city's civilian workforce, argues that workers are due for a raise after making sacrifices during the recession, including taking mandatory furloughs and contributing 4% of their salaries in perpetuity toward their retiree healthcare. But the reality is that even with those sacrifices, many city jobs pay much more than comparable private sector positions and come with generous benefits, according to a recent Times analysis. City security guards, janitors and gardeners, for example, earn more than double the median salary of people who hold similar jobs in the private sector in Los Angeles County. The city also pays its workers more than other public agencies. The median wage for each L.A. city job category is 18% to 42% higher than in comparable government jobs elsewhere in L.A. County.
The wage gap has only grown in recent years after city leaders approved several irresponsibly rich labor deals, including the last contract with the Coalition of L.A. City Unions in 2007, which gave raises totaling nearly 25% at a time when other workers and unions were forgoing pay hikes. The generous raises proved too expensive during the recession and thousands of jobs were eliminated and city services, such as street paving and tree trimming, were cut to help avoid bankruptcy.
City officials are right this time around to hold the line on raises — not so much because city workers are overpaid but because city workers should be paid no more than the city can afford. This is a critical moment for L.A.'s future. After years of budget crisis, the city could, if it behaves responsibly, eliminate its structural deficit in 2018, giving leaders the ability to hire and train workers to replace retiring baby boomers, invest in its aging infrastructure and buy technology to deliver services more efficiently. That's assuming, however, that the city can control labor expenses. Holding employee pay and benefits to sustainable levels now can help put L.A. back on solid financial ground so that it can begin reinvesting in services, infrastructure and even workers' salaries.