L.A. City Hall fears ripple effect of layoffs

For decades, no matter how grim the budget was, Los Angeles officials avoided laying off even small numbers of workers who had Civil Service protection. That changed Thursday.

Pink slips were being issued to the first group of about a dozen such employees as the city embarks on an unprecedented process that could lead to the elimination of 4,000 jobs to help close a projected $485-million budget gap.

More cuts could come as early as Friday, which is expected to touch off a seniority-based bumping process that could potentially force thousands of employees into positions they previously held, city officials said.

If mass job eliminations go forward, the bumping process -- essentially a drawn-out version of musical chairs -- could require many of the city’s 48,500 employees to return to lower-ranking and, in many cases lower-paying, jobs. Those maneuvers might take as long as seven months.

Under decades-old Civil Service rules that cover the vast majority of city workers, managers must consider seniority alone in determining who is let go.

Some city officials and business leaders fear this could force out some of L.A.'s most productive municipal employees.

The potential disruptions in city services ranging from building inspections to pothole repairs are “one of the best-kept secrets in city government,” said David W. Fleming, the founder of the Los Angeles County Business Federation, who argued unsuccessfully for changes to the Civil Service system when the City Charter was being revised in the late 1990s. “These rules really handcuff the city in being able to act promptly in righting the ship,” Fleming said.

Though some employees have left through buyouts and early retirement deals, leaders have skirted layoffs up to now in part to avoid the bumping scenario.

“Every time we’ve ever used the word ‘layoff,’ the [employee] ended up in another position,” said City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, whose career with the city spans 45 years. “They may have gone to a department they may not have wanted to go to, but their job was secure, their benefits were secure.”

Weighing seniority is common in both the public and private sectors because it is “generally perceived as a relatively fair and impartial way of making decisions about who gets to keep their jobs and who gets to lose them,” said Sanford Jacoby, a UCLA management professor. “There is a great deal of skepticism about how fairly a performance-based system can be administered.”

Layoffs based solely on merit are rare even in the private sector, he said.

Unlike the city, Los Angeles County terminates employees who were evaluated as needing improvement before laying off other permanent workers.

Los Angeles labor leaders say the layoff procedures are an important safeguard in a system that was designed in the early part of the last century to root out cronyism, corruption and favoritism. Aspects of the city’s firing rules date back to the 1925 City Charter.

“These systems were adopted with the goal of ensuring that hiring was merit-based and everyone who is able to achieve a Civil Service position is thoroughly tested and vetted,” said Cheryl Parisi, executive director of California District Council 36 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

When the city is forced to downsize, Parisi said, “the system is built to ensure those decisions are really based on objective standards -- and the objective standard is a seniority-based system.”

But Alec Levenson, a labor economist at the Center for Effective Organizations at USC’s Marshall School of Business, said, “It’s only fair to people who are around a long time. It’s not fair to people who are lower tenure and who are more productive.”

In recent weeks, personnel department officials have tried to minimize layoffs by transferring more than 240 workers to departments not financed by the city’s troubled general fund, including the airport, harbor and the Department of Water and Power -- which account for about 15,000 city workers.

Though city officials hope to get some savings from job eliminations in the fiscal year ending June 30, they cannot dismiss any of the roughly 22,000 workers represented by the Coalition of L.A. City Unions until then because of a labor deal. Almost 14,000 others are police and firefighters -- departments that city leaders are reluctant to touch. A few employees expected to be laid off this week are exempt from Civil Service protections.

Even if city and labor leaders are able to strike a deal to avoid the full 4,000 job eliminations, city personnel managers say the bumping process could affect every department.

Officials said late Thursday that the jobs being eliminated in the first wave are held by people with little seniority, meaning those layoffs would not immediately trigger a domino effect of personnel moves.

But that bumping process would be triggered with more cuts being finalized as soon as Friday, they added.

For every position eliminated, as many as six people may have to change jobs, depending on how senior the position is, personnel officials said.

With some agencies already experiencing a talent drain from early retirements approved last fall for 2,400 workers, some city leaders fear all that job switching could hamper services.

“It’s not that 30,000 people would be in strange jobs -- most would be in familiar territory,” Council President Eric Garcetti said. “But you run a much larger risk of people not being up to date on the systems, the facilities, the procedures of delivering services in the new departments.”

That is one reason why Garcetti, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and business leaders hope that the unions will instead agree before June 30 to an across-the-board pay cut of as much as 10%, which budget analysts say could save as much as $290 million next year.

L.A.'s charter revision panels generally steered away from altering Civil Service rules in the late 1990s. Raphael J. Sonenshein, who was executive director of the appointed Charter Reform Commission, said the suggestion of Civil Service changes was “politically very, very sensitive.”

“The unions were very upset about revisiting things involving the Civil Service protections in the charter,” said Sonenshein, who is chairman of the division of politics, administration and justice at Cal State Fullerton. “It could have theoretically derailed the whole process.”

Now, however, the prospect of so many Los Angeles workers changing jobs in the months ahead has rekindled debate over the Civil Service rules. Councilman Bill Rosendahl has questioned the logic of firing the youngest workers who “are on the front lines” in the city’s parks and libraries.

Parks, who chairs the budget committee, said a panel should study the effectiveness of the city’s Civil Service provisions. “It’s got to be cleaned up to where you have rules that are workable, that people understand, and that you can actually manage your personnel with,” he said.

But even if the voters agreed to changes, Jacoby, the UCLA management professor, cautioned that “layoffs are never done cleanly. There’s always a great deal of mess.”