L.A. County and Its Largest Union Hammer Out Pact

Times Staff Writer

After an all-night negotiating session, Los Angeles County's largest employee union struck a deal with the county Wednesday that largely preserves workers' health benefits and includes small pay raises.

The accord came at the crack of dawn after nearly 24 hours of steady bargaining. Hundreds of union and county officials emerged from the downtown Westin Bonaventure Hotel exhausted but satisfied with a give-and-take agreement forged in a bruising budget year.

"We drew the line and we held it," said Bart Diener, assistant general manager of Service Employees International Union Local 660. "This is an agreement that has no take-aways and, in fact, has some financial gains for our 50,000 members."

The agreement, which has yet to be ratified by union members or the Board of Supervisors, includes a 5% pay raise to be phased in over three years. For 2004, however, salaries would remain frozen.

With the state budget still in a shambles, county leaders were hesitant to make long-term commitments, so the deal includes an escape clause of sorts: If county finances sour, supervisors can declare an "economic emergency" and cancel raises scheduled for 2005 and 2006.

"It's a landmark agreement," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "It gives them what they've earned and what we can afford in today's terms, but it also gives us a safety valve for the future."

SEIU Local 660, which represents nurses, librarians, street repair workers and other county employees, was determined to protect health benefits gained in earlier contracts -- even as health insurance premiums have surged.

The resulting deal largely achieves that goal, requiring the county to pick up a 28.2% increase in health-care costs, or roughly $40 million, through 2006.

But the actual cost of rising premiums could easily exceed that amount. If that happens, the contract could be retooled to use a portion of the workers' salary increases to cover additional health-care costs.

That provision allows the county to cap its fiscal liability in the event that health insurance premiums spiral beyond projections.

"It's a share-the-pain deal," said Jim Adams, the county's chief of employee relations. "What we liked about it is it limits our exposure."

Local 660's members will have a small co-payment for medical care, currently $5 per doctor visit. The county initially sought to double that to $10, but relented in the face of stiff union opposition. Workers staged dozens of noisy demonstrations in recent weeks, blowing whistles and chanting "No take-aways!"

While the key salary and health-care issues have been resolved, county negotiators are still hammering out contracts with various bargaining units involving work conditions and overtime pay.

Local 660's deal does not apply to another group of unions representing about 25,000 county workers, including sheriff's deputies. Those workers have been without a contract for months and have yet to reach agreement.

Yaroslavsky, who as board chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been immersed in another labor dispute with the striking mechanics' union, praised SEIU Local 660 as a "strong" union whose leadership "thinks outside the box."

The contrast between the county's deal with Local 660 and the MTA's negotiations with the mechanics, he said, was "night and day."

For Alina Mendizabal, a county hospital worker, the agreement simply means that Yaroslavsky and other county leaders value her and her co-workers.

"It felt like the Board of Supervisors listened," said Mendizabal, who has worked at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar for 18 years. "It was like a validation for the hard work we do every day."

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