In another indication of Los Angeles County's dire financial straits, the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a policy that would close on a trial basis many county operations for an extra day each week in anticipation of saving millions of dollars.
The far-reaching proposal would impose a four-day, 40-hour workweek on tens of thousands of government employees, except those working in courts, jails, juvenile halls, hospitals and other public safety operations, including the Sheriff's Department. Officials say they expect to save $22.6 million annually.
A total of 42,000 of the county's 80,000 workers would be affected, in such departments as public social services, children's services, health services, the registrar-recorder's office, the Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum.
County officials provided no timetable for the switch but said individual departments would begin implementing the plan over the next several weeks.
Each department's plan to shift to a four-day week must be approved by the board, which authorized a six-month trial period for the experiment.
In Tuesday's action, the board voted 3 to 1, with Supervisor Gloria Molina abstaining, to immediately put 200 Department of Public Social Services employees on the so-called 4/40 schedule and extend it to other workers as soon as possible.
Under the new schedule, expected to go into effect in two to four weeks, the Department of Public Social Services headquarters building would be open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, said department director Eddy S. Tanaka.
Eventually that schedule will be extended throughout the department's 31 field offices, where 9,000 employees work.
Tanaka said the department already has arrangements with private agencies to provide emergency aid such as housing and food to welfare clients when county offices are closed.
"I think this will have a positive impact on the clientele since it will be an extension of the normal 5 p.m. closing time," Tanaka said. "Like anything else, it's going to take some adjustments on the part of employees and the public."
The 4/40 work schedule already has been tried on a limited basis in a few county departments, but the board's decision to expand the concept countywide is far more controversial. Supervisor Ed Edelman, who voted against the measure, contends that it will be a disaster for the public, reducing access to public facilities and decreasing productivity.
"The cost savings are slim and exaggerated," Edelman said. "Will it hurt the public? Sure, certainly."
Union officials echoed Edelman's concerns and said they will probably contest the move by filing a protest with the county's Employee Relations Commission.
"Our position is that it violates the terms of our contract," said Dan Savage, a representative of Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union, which is in contract negotiations with the county. "We don't oppose people working a four-day work week but we do oppose something that is imposed unilaterally and is not voluntary."
Savage said the plan could create problems for workers who depend on public transportation or have rigid child-care arrangements. Savage also questioned the county's contention that the 4/40 schedule would increase productivity. He said studies have shown that productivity tends to decrease toward the end of an extended work day. And he raised the possibility that an extended work day might expose employees to greater work hazards.
"Is a clerical worker who's typing 10 hours a day rather than eight going to be more prone to carpal tunnel syndrome?" he said. "There is a downside that should be looked at."
County officials said that provisions will be made for hardship cases in which employees can prove that switching to the new schedule would be detrimental.
"It's a cultural change here we're looking at, going from five days a week to four," said the county's employee relations director, Elliot Marcus. "But the feedback we've gotten so far is that the employees (in the trial program) love it. It gives them a three-day weekend, one less day commuting; there are a lot of individual reasons why people go for it."
Supervisor Mike Antonovich, a strong supporter of the plan who introduced Tuesday's motion, argued that the county must consider approaches such as a shortened work week to meet constraints imposed by the worst fiscal crisis in county history. Last week, the board approved a $13.5-billion annual budget that calls for 2,000 layoffs and major cuts in health and welfare programs.
The county is still hoping that the state Legislature will enact several bills that would free up needed funds and lighten its burden, but it is also still looking for ways to reduce costs.
"The 4/40 plan will help taxpayers and those being served by the county," said Antonovich, disputing Edelman's contention that services would suffer. "One good opportunity you have in a budget crisis is bringing in innovative ideas like this one."