In an action that caused closure of nearly a dozen health clinics, more than 2,000 nurses, clerks and welfare workers took Monday off in apparent protest of the lack of a new contract between Los Angeles County and its largest employee union.
Hit hardest by the sickout were the county's 42 neighborhood health clinics, where 605 nurses and clerks, of a total of 831, failed to show up for work. Officials closed 11 of the clinics when it became apparent Monday morning that their staff members would not show up, said Larry Roberts, acting deputy director of the Department of Health Services. Services were curtailed at the other 31.
The scope of the sickout--it was the largest of four in the last two weeks--represented an escalation of employees' discontent over the pace of contract negotiations. Those negotiations, between the county and its largest union, Service Employees International Union Local 660, continued Monday for the second week with the help of a state mediator.
Union officials, who asked not to be identified by name, predicted more sickouts, perhaps involving other departments, for today.
A number of county hospitals, including Martin Luther King Jr., Rancho Los Amigos and Harbor General hospitals and USC Medical Center, also felt the effect of Monday's sickout. Those facilities reported 305 unexcused absences among a total nursing and clerical staff of 1,513. Not enough nurses were absent, however, to seriously disrupt normal routine at the hospitals, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health Services said. She added that officials did not have a tally of how many nurses as opposed to clerical workers were absent Monday.
"Contract fever," as union officials have dubbed the sickouts, also struck the Department of Public Social Services. Officials reported that 1,208 of 2,680 clerks and welfare eligibility workers at 15 affected offices called in sick. Hardest hit was a Long Beach office, where 99 of 159 clerks and eligibility workers called in sick, department spokeswoman Carol Matsui said. The department has 54 offices countywide, employing about 8,000 workers.
At issue in the contract dispute are union demands for salary hikes averaging about 5% per year as well as a boost in fringe benefits. The county, according to union negotiators, has offered raises of less than half that amount coupled with reductions in previously granted fringe benefits. Management negotiators have declined to discuss their offers.
County officials said 2,234 employees called in sick Monday. Union officials, citing "reports from the field" and "our own observations," placed the "unauthorized" absenteeism at closer to 4,000.
Both sides agreed that Monday's sickout was the most significant public employee job action in the county this year. In recent weeks, several one-day sickouts have been staged, but each has involved only a few hundred public social services workers.
Under county policy, anyone who calls in sick must be able to prove that he or she was ill or forfeit pay for the time missed, said Don Deiss, assistant chief administrative officer.
Phil Giarrizzo, general manager of Local 660, claimed that the sickouts are unsanctioned by the union but said the union is not discouraging them.
May Vote Thursday
Giarrizzo said that a mass meeting of the union is scheduled for Thursday night and that a strike authorization vote may be taken then. Local 660 is one of 21 unions representing county employees, but it is by far the largest, bargaining for 40,000 of the county's 71,000 workers.
Other unions are also trying to win settlements with the county under agreements to extend contracts that expired Aug. 31 through at least Sept. 30. Only employees represented by Local 660 have engaged in sickouts, however.
Last Friday, the county filed an unfair labor practice charge with the county's Employee Relations Commission against Local 660, charging that the work stoppages have been encouraged by the union. No action has been taken on the charge.