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ORANGE COUNTY IN BANKRUPTCY : Unions Blast County Over New Hires, Say Moves Bolster Suit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Labor leaders Friday blasted the county for filling 150 new jobs since a hiring freeze went into effect Dec. 8, saying the move would bolster a lawsuit they plan to file next week alleging the layoffs of county employees were conducted illegally.

Except in rare occasions, the county has declined to fill the positions from the ranks of hundreds of county workers facing layoffs or transfers from other departments--a policy that has added to workers’ outrage.

“They’re hiring with one hand and firing with the other,” said Tobye Lovelace, spokeswoman for the Orange County Employees Assn. “We think the hiring freeze must be a joke.”

But county officials--who imposed the hiring freeze and announced plans this month to lay off 400 workers--defended the decision to fill 153 positions, saying all were crucial commitments made prior to the county’s bankruptcy declaration Dec. 6.

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Department heads who have pared their budgets and trimmed staff in response to the county’s financial crisis also defended colleagues’ decisions to hire workers after the debacle first unfolded. The county is attempting to bridge a budget gap estimated at $172 million over the next six months.

“Everybody has to do something a little different to get the job done. When someone says, ‘I need such and such,’ I don’t begrudge that,” said Superior Court Executive Officer Alan Slater.

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Ninety-seven of the posts filled since the freeze have gone to full-time workers, and all fulfilled commitments made before the crisis, according to county spokesman Sandra Sternberg. In the meantime, 190 other job offers were rescinded, she said.

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The new hires ranged from Sheriff Brad Gates’ executive secretary, who started work Thursday, to sheriff’s deputy trainees, a bookbinder and mental health counselors.

“You’ve got to consider the first month a transition,” Sternberg said. “Certainly the aim is not to increase expenditures or to let one set of people go to the detriment of the other set.”

Marc Beilinson, an attorney for a newly formed coalition of labor groups, said the hiring provides evidence that the county did not need to suspend labor agreements that protect senior workers. The lawsuit will claim the county violated bargaining agreements and state law when the supervisors suspended provisions of labor contracts that protect workers according to seniority.

“It’s additional evidence that the county is seeking to lay off senior people through using emergency procedures,” he said. “They are simply using the bankruptcy process as an excuse to fire long-time public employees and replace them with newer, less expensive labor.”

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Labor leaders also are suspicious of the process used to hire a handful of laid-off workers, suggesting the hires should have been made in accordance with labor contracts and rules of seniority. Some said they are concerned that favoritism has been shown to some workers.

“As far as reassigning people versus laying them off, we think that’s something the county should do. But we think they should do it in an organized fashion as outlined under our (labor contracts,)” Lovelace said.

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One example offered is the rehiring of Ruth Allison, 56, who was laid off from Supervisor Roger R. Stanton’s office Dec. 21 in the first wave of cost-cutting. She started a new job Jan. 6 as a clerical worker for the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors.

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County officials and department heads said Friday the new hires are part of the transition to a leaner county work force and a reduced budget.

“These job offers were made, some of them as early as the 10th of August, all the way through Dec. 6,” said Ken Mays, a manager with the county’s Human Resource Department. “These weren’t just arbitrary hires during the bankruptcy.”

Tom Uram, director of the county Health Care Agency and a member of the management council that recommended the $42 million in cuts to county departments, said he followed through on some job offers he made before Dec. 6, but rescinded offers to 26 people. Uram said he did not know how many jobs he filled.

“We wound up with a few that we felt we had to have. There is a freeze on,” said Uram. “We haven’t made a job offer since the 7th.”

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Uram also came to the defense of Gates, another management council member, saying that all the Sheriff’s new hires underwent months of security checks.

Mays said the search for the sheriff’s secretary “goes back six or eight months.

“It wasn’t something that was thought up recently,” he said.


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