Los Angeles' elected officials have spent weeks trying to convince their employees to take a 4% cut in salary in exchange for an end to unpaid furloughs that stood to slash their incomes by even more.
That tradeoff, part of the strategy for eliminating a $457-million shortfall, has been greeted warmly by city workers who faced salary cuts of 10% due to the mandatory unpaid days off. But the demand for more concessions has been complicated by a little-known fact: The vast majority of workers at City Hall have not taken any furloughs.
Some departments, including the Los Angeles World Airport and the Port of Los Angeles, are exempt from the furloughs imposed over the last two years. So are police officers, sanitation workers, librarians, zookeepers, streetlight workers and parks and recreation employees who either are considered too crucial to remove from their posts or are paid from funds that cannot be raided to balance the budget.
That situation explains why a relatively few employees have called on their co-workers to reject the deal struck by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and leaders of the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, which represents six labor groups. City leaders "continue to give exemption after exemption to all these people," said Paul Castro, a 13-year City Hall employee who opposes the new agreement. "[At] the harbor, the airport, they're not going to be furloughed either way. Why should they make this sacrifice?"
The proposed labor agreement is central to the budget unveiled last week by Villaraigosa, who says it will save $69 million and serve as a model for other union deals. Tuesday is the last day to cast ballots, so supporters and opponents of the agreement have been making their cases.
Backers of the agreement say it offers important new protections for healthcare coverage provided to retired city workers. They contend that even workers who don't face furloughs want to see them end so that city services are no longer disrupted by missing employees.
"We're a union, and we stand together," said city employee Simboa Wright, who has not had to go on furloughs because his Bureau of Sanitation job is paid from funds outside the city budget.
Villaraigosa has warned that if the deal is rejected, he will impose more than seven weeks of furloughs for every coalition member, even those who were spared last year. That would be the equivalent of a 14% pay cut in a single year.
"I've had discussions with other union leaders, and I see a path to getting agreements across the board," the mayor said last week as he rolled out his new budget. "But as I said, if the bargaining units choose not to approve this, we'll just have to move ahead with 36 days of furloughs."
Still, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, the top budget official at City Hall, said city officials face another hurdle. After two years, some employees have gotten used to furloughs and incorporate them into their routines. "If people don't work particular days, they spend more time with their family," Santana said. "I'm not saying that's everybody. But for some people, it may be an issue."
The proposed deal reached by Villaraigosa and the coalition is part of a broader attempt to rein in growing retirements costs, which could consume one-third of the budget by 2015. The deal would require coalition members to contribute 4% of their pay for the cost of retirement healthcare coverage and delay three pay increases totaling 7.25% for a year or more. They would also take a 1.5% pay cut this year in exchange for four days off during the week of Christmas.
Of the group's 14,570 full-time employees, 57% were spared from furloughs, either because they were in independent departments or had salaries paid with state and federal funds, budget officials said. In addition, the coalition includes 4,200 part-time workers who are exempted from furloughs but can vote on the contract, according to a union spokeswoman.
Those figures have caused even some supporters of the agreement to wonder why members would favor it. "Some of these coalition members, as I understand it, have nothing to gain," said Councilman Bernard Parks, who heads the council's Budget and Finance Committee.
Coalition leaders and Villaraigosa aides say the support stems from the provision to guarantee healthcare coverage for employees and spouses after workers retire. The current $1,190-per-month retirement healthcare subsidy, which can be used to purchase health insurance and covers spouses and partners, is not guaranteed, said Matt Szabo, Villaraigosa's deputy chief of staff.
Santana described that provision of the agreement as "a big get" for the city's employees that would turn the tide in favor of the proposal. "I think at the end of the day that they'll vote for it," he said.