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Agency Says ‘Living Wage’ Law Covers Airport Guards, Janitors

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A ruling by Los Angeles’ Bureau of Contract Administration sharply contradicts Mayor Richard Riordan’s office on a controversial and hotly disputed wage rule that could apply to thousands of workers at Los Angeles International and Ontario airports.

At issue is whether the city’s so-called living wage ordinance, passed by the council last year over Riordan’s veto, applies to the airlines with leases at the two facilities.

The carriers have argued that they are beyond the ordinance’s reach, and their refusal to knuckle under to the city rule has meant that thousands of workers, including airport security guards and janitors, are being paid the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour rather than $7.25 with benefits or $8.50 without them, as required by the living wage ordinance.

While working behind the scenes to win the airlines’ voluntary compliance with the law, Riordan administration officials have maintained that the statute should not be imposed on the carriers.

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The officials have received some support from the city attorney’s office, which initially questioned the ordinance’s applicability to certain city departments, such as the airport, and lately has issued an opinion that the living wage law needs to be made clearer in some areas.

Now, however, the contract bureau has sided with advocates of the ordinance and against the mayor.

“Custodial, building maintenance and security services provided under the Terminal Lease Agreement are subject to the provisions of the [living wage ordinance],” C. Bernard Gilpin, director of the bureau, wrote to Airport Director John J. Driscoll. “Please include the required . . . compliance language in the proposed Terminal Lease Agreement.”

That finding is sure to antagonize the airlines, which have bitterly resisted the ordinance.

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The airlines, while trying to avoid a public fight on the embarrassing topic of how little they pay some employees, particularly those who provide airport security, have banded together and hired an influential law firm to resist the statute. Many observers believe that a court battle is inevitable.

In part, the carriers’ objections grow out of a particular aspect of the ordinance. The statute is intended to force large firms to pay the living wage to people in jobs that city employees would otherwise probably perform.

Advocates of the living wage say that under that reasoning, airport security workers, for example, would be covered because if the airlines did not hire the guards, the city would--since it employs guards at other facilities and would not possibly let the airport go unprotected.

The airlines respond by arguing that federal law requires them to do the screening. Their conclusion: City employees never could be hired to do those jobs, since federal law would not allow it.

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In a March letter to the contract bureau, the lawyer for the airlines methodically laid out the case opposing application of the ordinance to LAX and Ontario.

After stating a host of objections based on the legal reach of the ordinance and the history of the airlines in supplying their own workers, Robert S. Span of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker concluded: “These workers are not performing services for the city and are not substitutes for city employees.”

Interviewed Wednesday, Span said he and his clients were pleased with the contract bureau’s conclusion that air transportation workers were not covered by the ordinance, but that they disagreed with the ruling on custodial and security workers.

That ruling will be appealed, he said.

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Meanwhile, backers of the living wage welcomed the finding and said it could help thousands of airport workers.

“The general ruling will ultimately cover about 2,500 to 3,000 people,” said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, director of the Los Angeles Living Wage Coalition. “It verifies what we have been saying: This is what the living wage ordinance was about in the first place.”

Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who championed the living wage law through the council, said she believes that the contract bureau was cautious and reasonable in its determination.

“We’re not trying to regulate the airlines,” she said. “They contract out this work. These custodians and security personnel are not airline employees. They are employees of the contractor.”

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Meanwhile, City Controller Rick Tuttle, reacting to a study that shows many Los Angeles departments failing to implement the ordinance, issued a letter instructing departments to crack down on contractors who fail to pay the required wages.

Beginning July 1, Tuttle will require all city department heads to certify that each contractor has met the living wage requirements before being paid. If the law is not being followed, contracts ultimately could be terminated, officials said.

“We think it will be an effective mechanism to get people to start paying attention to the law,” said Administrative Deputy Controller Tim Lynch.

And the City Council approved a series of motions Wednesday to strengthen enforcement of the statute. Among other things, the council agreed to include all city employees not previously covered by the ordinance, such as school crossing guards, under the law. The council also voted to make department heads’ compliance with the law one of the criteria in their yearly merit pay evaluations.

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All of this compounds the dilemma of a mayor who wants to be seen as sympathetic to workers and yet refuses to accept labor’s argument--and the council’s action--that a legally mandated living wage is the best way to protect low-paid private-sector employees doing work that would otherwise be handled by city workers.

Riordan has tried to pursue the living wage issue on two tracks, resisting attempts to have the ordinance applied to the airlines while leaning on them to comply voluntarily.

He has met with leaders of United Airlines and with federal Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, among others, in an effort to win voluntarily compliance.

So far, however, that approach has not convinced the airlines--and not helped the airport workers.

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Nevertheless, Noelia Rodriguez, the mayor’s press secretary, said Riordan will continue trying to win over the airlines by arguing that paying living wages is their moral responsibility and is ultimately good for business.

“To the mayor, even if they said no, no is just a suggestion,” Rodriguez said. “He will continue to hammer away.”

Times staff writer Beth Shuster contributed to this story.


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