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Judge Orders Sheriff's Deputies to Halt Sickouts

Law: Weeklong job actions by guards at courthouses and jails threaten public safety, he says. Union vows to appeal ruling.


A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Thursday issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting sheriff's deputies from participating in further sickouts or other work actions aimed at forcing the county Board of Supervisors to meet their union's demands for a pay raise.

Saying a weeklong series of job actions by deputies who guard courthouses and jails poses a threat to the health and welfare of the community, Judge Ricardo A. Torres told attorneys for the Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs that law enforcement officers who do not report for work without an adequate excuse will be held in contempt of court.

"This court isn't going to wait until there are injuries," the judge said, citing the possibility of increased dangers in jails and courthouses if staffing is inadequate.

Richard Shinee, a lawyer for the deputies union, said his organization will appeal the decision. "We are of course disappointed," he said.

The judge's order came on the seventh day of a "blue flu" outbreak in which hundreds of deputies assigned to courthouses and jails across the county have called in sick, impeding operations of the county's vast criminal justice system. On Thursday morning, 93 of the 135 bus drivers assigned to transport jail inmates to court failed to show up for work, forcing judges to cancel some court proceedings and order many jurors back for an extra day of service.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky praised the judge for issuing the restraining order and urged all sides to return to the bargaining table quickly.

"Our action in court today should not be viewed as a hostile act," Yaroslavsky said. "It should be viewed as an effort to protect the public safety. We are ready tonight, tomorrow, through the weekend to do what's right by them and the employees of this county."

Although he declined to discuss details of what separates the two sides, Yaroslavsky said the county and the union are "not that far apart. It's sufficiently close so that we can wrap something up.

"We are in a position now to negotiate a package. They deserve a package; they have made a lot of sacrifices for this county organization and the people of this county--but it can't happen unless we're talking across the table," Yaroslavsky said at an afternoon news conference. "Let's behave like adults. Let's behave like grown-ups."

Although Judge Torres allowed deputies to continue informational picketing, he said he was putting an end to activities resulting in work shortages, stoppages or strikes.

He also barred the deputies from making harassing phone calls to the offices of the five elected supervisors. And, despite vigorous objections from union attorneys, Torres ordered the association to issue a formal statement calling for an end to both sickouts and phone calls.

Deputies, who had been seeking a 15% raise over the next three years, began the job action last week after county negotiators reportedly offered a 1.5% increase for one year. Members of the union, which represents about 7,000 deputies performing various duties throughout the Sheriff's Department, complained that they have not had a cost-of-living increase in more than three years and have been working without a contract since February.

Although county and sheriff's officials say they can understand the deputies' frustration, they criticized their tactics.

Yaroslavsky said many other county employees, such as court reporters, have been working without a pay raise for twice as long. Dozens of court reporters have also called in sick this week, but the restraining order affects only the deputies.

In their petition, county lawyers said a California Court of Appeal has clearly ruled that peace officers are prohibited from striking and may not engage in sickouts, work slowdowns or any other kind of job action while labor negotiations are in progress.

County court papers filed in support of the temporary restraining order say deputies have been making hundreds of phone calls on some days--from union headquarters--to county supervisors' offices. Many of the calls, the court papers say, have been lewd or threatening.

Deputies union officials have denied encouraging any employees to walk off the job. Union representatives have also denied knowing about any of their members making harassing phone calls to county officials. They have described the allegations as a "smoke screen" aimed at drawing attention away from contract negotiations.

At his news conference, Yaroslavsky angrily stated that phone traces of the calls have provided solid evidence that the union and its members are responsible. "Categorical denial to something we have known for some time," he said, "is kind of stupid."

According to sheriff's officials, the work stoppages have resulted in the dismissal of six criminal cases--most of them narcotics-related--because defendants were not brought to court in time.

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