Six city unions block hikes in healthcare costs

Six Los Angeles city employee unions have blocked Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa from seeking to impose higher healthcare costs on its members, even as a seventh labor organization agreed to a wide range of concessions.

Union healthcare: An article in Wednesday’s LATExtra section about healthcare benefits for Los Angeles city employees said members of a city union had agreed to pay more for visits to doctors and emergency rooms. In fact, the Engineers and Architects Assn. agreed to higher co-payments for doctor visits but not for emergency room stays. —

The Coalition of L.A. City Unions, which represents roughly 22,000 members, persuaded the city’s employee relations board to block budget negotiators from declaring an impasse in the current round of contract talks. Negotiators had sought that declaration so they could unilaterally increase the cost of doctors’ visits, hospital stays and prescription drugs for civilian city workers.

Although that decision dealt the mayor a setback, Villaraigosa touted a new agreement that requires employees of the Engineers and Architects Assn. to pay more for their healthcare.

That union, which has roughly 4,800 members, announced Monday that members had ratified a one-year contract requiring them to pay a minimum of 5% toward their healthcare premiums — up from zero. Villaraigosa praised the union for approving the agreement and promised to intensify his effort to force other employee groups to pay 10% of the cost of their premiums.

“We’re not going to stop here,” he said.

City leaders have grown increasingly worried about the rising cost of employee benefits. Pension costs are expected to go up by $800 million by 2015, consuming nearly one-third of the city’s general fund and dramatically eroding the amount of money available for public services.

Healthcare costs are expected to go up by $153 million over the same period for the city’s civilian workforce.

A lawyer for the coalition called Villaraigosa’s effort to declare an impasse “reckless.” Meanwhile, a representative of the Service Employees International Union Local 721, which belongs to the labor coalition, said the city should shift its focus by going after unpaid bills owed to the city and convincing lenders to reduce the number of foreclosures in neighborhoods.

“We represent a lot of people who are making $40,000 per year,” said Michael Soller, the union’s spokesman. “Going after families living on $40,000 per year isn’t going to solve the budget crisis.”

Over the last month, union activists tried to torpedo passage of the proposed Engineers and Architects’ contract, saying it would establish a dangerous precedent for other workers. Three of the Engineers and Architects’ four bargaining units rejected the deal earlier this month.

The contract was ratified on a second vote, however, with members of the Engineers and Architects agreeing to increase their co-payments for visits to doctors and emergency rooms. In exchange, city budget negotiators agreed to reduce the number of unpaid furlough days for the union from 26 to 10 this year.