Council OKs Fund to Help Workers Shape Up

Times Staff Writer

The dancing won't stop. The sweat can still run. And the rapid heartbeat can go on for employees at the Los Angeles Community Development Department after the City Council agreed Wednesday to continue paying part of their costs for aerobic exercise classes.

The council, after a vigorous debate, voted to spend $6,475 to help fund the exercise regimen as part of a pilot project aimed at developing "wellness" programs for city workers.

Although the amount of money was minuscule compared to the million-dollar programs that normally flow through the council, the issue of using public money to help subsidize exercise classes for employees touched off a lively discussion between supporters and skeptics.

"I think it's an inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars," said Councilman Hal Bernson, one of two council members who voted against the proposal.

"This is more than just exercise," countered council member Joan Milke Flores. "These employees have been given an opportunity to have health evaluations which can be very beneficial in curbing absenteeism. They also have diet clinics, nonsmoking clinics and stress classes."

"We hope that if this is successful, this will lead to a citywide program," she said.

The council has pushed the city's 22 agencies to develop "wellness" programs as a way to combat the growing number of sick days used by city employees. And the Community Development Department had been one of the hardest hit by the absenteeism problem, said Steven M. Porter, assistant general manager.

In moving to improve the health of its workers, Porter said, an aerobics instructor was hired last year to conduct exercise classes and to advise agency employees on health and fitness. The department also paid a private firm to conduct health screening programs.

"It has had positive results," said Councilwoman Joy Picus. "There's no question that a program of that sort would have good results, just as not continuing the program will have negative results--not only on the health of the people involved but on their morale as well."

Between 22 and 28 employees--out of a staff of 400--participated regularly in the voluntary program, which was paid for by federal block grant funds. Last October, participants began paying for the classes.

But the council action, which extends the program until June 30, means that the city now will pick up most of the cost. However, employees in the classes are expected to pay $6 a month, which could help reduce the city's net costs to less than $5,000.

In opposing the expenditure, Councilman Howard Finn said the city subsidy amounts to "a salary increase" to a select group of employees. But Porter said that with the guarantee of funding, more employees will be encouraged to participate.

Porter added that employees in the exercise program now work out in an office in the department's downtown headquarters--an office donated by the owner of the building. The classes are held after working hours, he said, and include not only aerobics but sessions on nutrition and weight-reduction.

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