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Health Crews Abandoning Their Cars in Job Protest : Labor: Union members bicycle or walk to their inspection sites. They seek pay hike and higher mileage reimbursements.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

More than 300 Los Angeles County health inspectors have taken to bicycling and walking to local restaurants, markets and other assignments in a contract dispute that has brought health inspections to a near-standstill.

A union official said the county has suspended about 12 inspectors since the protest began Wednesday. The inspectors, who have been without a new contract for nearly two years, are seeking a cost-of-living increase and higher mileage reimbursements for their personal cars, which they normally use for work.

Since the job action began, about 320 inspectors in the county Department of Health Services’ environmental health unit have pedaled bikes, ridden Metrolink trains and hoofed it to assignments throughout the county.

“It’s not any little wildcat action,” said Jim Somers, a negotiator with the Los Angeles County Assn. of Environmental Health Specialists, the union which represents inspectors. “Only about 5% of the inspections are being done.”

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One of those suspended Friday was Chris Gerfen, an inspector in the Pacoima branch on Van Nuys Boulevard, who has been bicycling since Wednesday to his West San Fernando Valley assignments.

“Yesterday, it took me two hours to ride my bike from here to the Fallbrook Fashion Mall,” said Gerfen, whose inspection rate fell from about 14 to three inspections a day.

Despite the suspension, Gerfen hopped back on the bike again Friday. “I’m going to continue my duty to protect the public,” he said. “They just can’t use my car anymore. They have not been bargaining in good faith.”

Elliot Marcus, director of labor relations for the county Chief Administrative Office, defended the suspensions.

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“The department has ordered them to do their work, they are refusing to, and that’s insubordination,” he said.

Health inspectors do everything from investigate food poisoning complaints at restaurants and markets to examine apartments for cockroach and rodent infestations, sometimes leading to criminal charges or business closures. They also evaluate sewage plans to see if they meet health code requirements.

Although health license fees that fund the department have increased by 40% since 1991, inspectors have not received a mileage increase in 13 years or a cost-of-living increase for the past three years, Somers said. The inspectors’ contract expired Oct. 31, 1992.

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Under the old contract, inspectors have been using their personal vehicles to travel to inspection sites and are then reimbursed by the county at 25 cents a mile, which they argued is too low, and does not cover expenses like flat tires and other routine repair and maintenance.

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Somers also argued that the county is illegally diverting money from his department to other county departments, saying that is the greatest source of anger among inspectors.

“The law is very specific,” he said. “The money we collect (from health license fees) is supposed to be spent on inspecting restaurants, markets, things like that. It cannot be spent on clinics and hospitals.”

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The inspectors filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Los Angeles Superior Court over the issue. The suit names Department of Health Services chief Robert Gates, county Chief Administrative Officer Sally Reed and the five county supervisors as defendants.

Union accountants claim that $14 million in health license fees was siphoned from the Department’s Environmental Health Section last year. The section, which employs about 350 health inspectors, funds itself through the health license fees.

“We think the county is transferring those funds to the general fund to support other programs that aren’t as profitable,” said union attorney Sylvia E. Kellison.

During the past three years, the department’s overall inspection rates have been down as much as 30%, Somers said. Critical inspections such as those of restaurants, which are supposed to be done four times a year, are down to less than twice a year, Somers said.

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Between 1993 and 1994, Somers said, the county raised health license fees 25%, although inspectors received no raises or cost-of-living hikes. The cost for inspecting an average food market went up from $380 to $472 while apartment building inspections increased from $267 to $331, Somers said.

“Anybody being charged a health license permit is being overcharged,” Somers said. “The health department has found a way to take this legal framework and abuse it.”

Health officials were unavailable for comment Friday on the job action or rate hikes. Marcus would not comment on the rate hikes, except to say they did not entitle workers to a raise.

“The fact of the matter is, these guys are scraping around and looking to be an exception to all county employees who have, in various manners, not received pay increases,” he said.

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Union officials have said the job action will last indefinitely. The two sides have not met at the bargaining table since June and, Somers said, “It’s going to get worse.”

Gerfen said he hopes it won’t.

“If somebody calls in and complains and it takes me half a day to get there on a bike, it may be food poisoning,” he said. “It may jeopardize somebody’s health.”


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