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What’s in a Name? A Lot at City Hall : Bureaucracy: Mayor’s effort to streamline 1,500 job titles causes stir. Critics say his staff does not understand the specialization needed to run a complicated metropolis.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are 1,500 job titles in the city of Los Angeles’ massive bureaucracy--straightforward ones such as “plumber” and “mayor” and nebulous ones such as “asphalt raker” and “wharfinger.”

The job classifications have become so specialized over the years that only the most entrenched City Hall denizens appreciate the subtle difference between, say, an “office equipment repairer” and a “typewriter repairer” or a “clerk,” “clerk typist” and “data entry operator.”

Mayor Richard Riordan, for one, considers the web of city job classifications too complicated and has ordered a major restructuring as part of his attempt to streamline City Hall. Slashing the number of job titles, the mayor says, would free the city’s 40,000 workers to handle a wider variety of tasks.

Although wary of Riordan because of his plans to have private firms take over some city work, union representatives agree that some reform in job classifications may be necessary. But they are raising numerous concerns and contend that Riordan aides--many of them newcomers to the city scene--do not understand the specialization needed to run a city as complicated as Los Angeles.

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“When you call a plumber to fix your toilet you don’t expect a construction worker to show up,” said Brian D’Arcy, business manager for Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. “And you don’t call a plumber to fix your electricity. I would have to be a lunatic to say the system is perfect now, but they haven’t thought this through.”

There is quite a bit to think through. Salaries are tied to job titles, and changing workers’ paychecks requires collective bargaining. And a city as massive as Los Angeles does require numerous specialists. Not to mention that the Civil Service system was designed to protect workers from unscrupulous bosses by very clearly defining who does what.

Still, there is general agreement that the system can be streamlined.

For instance, James Works is an “asphalt raker,” according to the city. But Works, who fills potholes, prefers to call himself a “street maintenance worker.”

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“It seems more dignified to say ‘street maintenance worker,’ ” said Works, an 18-year veteran. “If I say ‘raker,’ people don’t know what I mean.”

And union officials say there are some titles that remain on the city rolls--such as “Venetian blind repairer,” “laundry worker” and “seamster"--even though the jobs were phased out long ago.

As part of the review, officials have been looking at other municipalities. They discovered that two cities known for their obstinate bureaucracies--New York (with more than 2,000 job classes) and Chicago (with 1,900)--are both in the midst of similar consolidations. Tokyo, by contrast, has more workers than Los Angeles but only about 100 job classes.

Los Angeles has 1,496 job classes--which is down significantly from the more than 2,000 different jobs that existed before the last streamlining in the late 1970s.

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During the current stab at consolidation, however, city personnel officials are more ambitious, attempting to cut the number of job titles by roughly two-thirds. Although they doubt they will reach that goal, a draft report prepared by the city Personnel Department proposes combining as many as two dozen jobs into a single job title.

For instance, “secretaries,” “clerks,” “senior clerks,” “wharfingers,” “senior tellers,” “clerk stenographers,” “data entry operators” and “municipal bond registrars” would all be known by the rather straightforward title of “administrative assistant.”

(A wharfinger is an all-purpose clerk in the Harbor Department who must be able to lift up to 15 pounds, and have good arm, hand and finger dexterity with both hands, according to a city job description.)

An issue that remains to be worked out is how salaries would change. As it is now, a “utility accountant” starts at $34,556, an “accountant” starts at $28,188 and a “tax auditor” starts at $35,327. How much would they all be paid, the unions wonder, if they all became “accountant auditors”?

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Riordan aides say that salary concerns will be handled in negotiations with the unions after agreement has been reached on which jobs ought to be consolidated.

Unions also are concerned that consolidating job titles could affect livelihoods by taking members now represented by one union and transferring them to another.

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Despite the questions, Riordan aides say the consolidation could not be more needed.

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“It’s all aimed at greater efficiency,” said Deputy Mayor Mike Keeley, who is in charge of the consolidation. “All that the classifications do is to limit what people can do.”

Jobs now are so narrowly defined, they say, that it interferes with productivity--bogging down the city in a muddle of specificity.

One general manager has complained that an assistant refused to make photocopies because it was not in her job responsibilities. Police Chief Willie L. Williams wanted to transfer some analysts from one task to another within the Police Department but was told that city rules do not allow it.

Limiting workers to specific tasks has its purposes.

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It discourages bosses from arbitrarily moving workers around and forces management to promote workers to different job titles if their responsibilities increase. And specific job titles bring with them specific Civil Service tests and training requirements, which are essential in a city that operates a port, a utility and an airport.

But some union officials complain that the draft document produced by city personnel officials went too far in its proposals.

“It’s like they took a huge plate of spaghetti and threw it up against the wall and looked to see what stuck,” D’Arcy said. “We have people who deal with high voltage. Do you want to put them in the same classification with someone not used to working in dangerous situations?”

But the specificity can also hurt workers, said Faye Washington, general manager of the city Personnel Department. Workers often get stuck in career paths because of the established bureaucratic routes for promotion, she said.

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The unions are grudgingly joining in Riordan’s effort, knowing that the city can impose some of the consolidations without them.


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