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Court Halts Suspensions of Health Inspectors : Labor: The order prevents county action against protesting workers who refuse to drive their private cars on business.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles County health inspectors, who have been on a work slowdown since last week, won a crucial court victory Wednesday that will prevent the county from suspending inspectors who refuse to drive their private cars on county business.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert O’Brien granted a temporary restraining order against the county in response to a plea by lawyers representing about 350 inspectors, about 50 of whom have been suspended from their posts because they rode bicycles, walked or took public transportation to assignments instead of using their cars.

Union officials said the decision was a boost for their job action against the county, a protest begun on Wednesday of last week because they have had no pay raise for three years, no contract for nearly two years and no increase in their 25-cent per mile auto expense allowance for 13 years.

“We’ll go at it with a vengeance now,” said Jim Somers, a negotiator for the Los Angeles County Assn. of Environmental Health Specialists, the inspectors’ union. “You know how hard it is to get a temporary order? We’re dancing in the aisles over here.”

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In his four-page decision, Judge O’Brien also ruled that inspectors who have already been suspended for refusing to drive their own autos to assignments since the job action began must be paid for the days they were suspended.

County officials expressed surprise at the decision.

“I’m very disappointed,” said Lester Tolnai, senior deputy county counsel. “I don’t think the facts warranted the issuance of a temporary restraining order.”

“We will have to regroup and see what we can do next,” said Elliot Marcus, director of labor relations for the county chief administrative officer.

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However, both Tolnai and Marcus said the County Department of Health Services, which oversees the inspectors, will comply with the judge’s decision and rescind the driving-related suspensions.

Somers, who said his Monterey Park Environmental Health office erupted in cheers at the news of the judge’s decision, said he would call dozens of inspectors who expected to be suspended today and tell them to report to work.

The number of inspectors participating in the action since it began last week has dropped from about 320 to 200, due to a combination of the suspensions and the heat, Somers said.

Since the job action began, work by the inspectors--who examine public facilities from fast-food restaurants to apartment house swimming pools for disease risks--has dropped by 95%, union officials said.

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At the hearing before O’Brien on Wednesday, Union attorney Sylvia E. Kellison cited two cases related to past disputes with the county over use of employees’ personal vehicles.

In 1977, she argued, a state appellate judge in Los Angeles ruled that county employees had the right to refuse to use their private vehicles if they felt the reimbursement rate was inadequate. And in 1982, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge held that county employees could decline to use their cars if the contract obligating them to do so had expired.

The temporary restraining order will remain in effect until Aug. 31, when both sides will again go before O’Brien to learn whether he will replace it with a preliminary injunction.

Somers, who met with about 200 inspectors on Tuesday evening, said the consensus among rank-and-file inspectors is to continue the job action until the dispute is settled.

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There has been no talk of expanding the effort into a strike, Somers said.


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