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Home Health-Care Workers Get a Raise

Labor: County approves $18 million in pay hikes while implementing cost-cutting measures to reduce budget deficit.


Minutes after deferring requests to increase spending on fighting terrorism and organized crime, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved raises worth $18 million for members of a powerful health-care workers union.

On a 3-2 party-line vote, the board's three Democratic supervisors voted to give a 75-cents-an-hour pay increase to contract workers who care for the county's homebound elderly, infirm and disabled. Supporters welcomed the increase, which has been the subject of long and contentious debates among the supervisors and between the board and the union representing the workers.

Supervisor Don Knabe sharply criticized the raises. He noted that the supervisors granted the pay hikes even as they are implementing cost-cutting measures intended to trim the $800-million budget deficit that threatens to capsize the county health system. Knabe called the raises "an $18-million miracle."

But after a seven-year campaign for better pay and health benefits, members of the Service International Employees Union, Local 434B, said the hourly pay hike--from $6.75 to $7.50--was long overdue.

"It's a good first step," said union spokesman Timothy Jamal.

The union's 85,000 workers earned the minimum wage until 1999, when they unionized and were lauded by labor leaders as a model for organizing low-wage minority and immigrant workers.

Building on that early momentum, the union in 2000 demanded, and got, Gov. Gray Davis to approve a pay raise to $7.50 an hour plus health insurance. Davis also called for a $1-an-hour increase for four years.

The raises, though, proved easier to achieve in principle than in fact, partly because of a complex formula by which the workers' wages are paid.

The program that pays the workers, the Personal Assistance Services Council, receives about 80% of its money from state and federal funds, leaving Los Angeles County responsible for the other 20%.

Arguing that the state should shoulder the costs of pay increases, county officials initially refused to provide matching funds, and earlier this year the union tried to secure the raises through a ballot initiative.

The supervisors sought to kill the ballot measure in December, voting in a closed-door meeting to order their lawyer to prevent it from appearing on the ballot.

A judge ruled that the vote was illegal, then later found that the initiative itself was unconstitutional and should not appear on the ballot.

"It pains me that a year's worth of raises were held up for political reasons," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who moved Tuesday to have the county release $18 million set aside in the budget earlier this year to pay for the raises. "We ought to get on with it, put our divisions behind us and work with [the union] together."

Calling the raises "another unfunded mandate," Supervisor Mike Antonovich voted against them. "What the governor has adroitly done is pass [the cost of the raises] to local governments," he said.

Home health aides who work fewer than 112 hours a month will still be without health benefits, union officials said, and even with the raises, they will earn less than the minimum hourly wage the county requires contractors to pay their workers. County contractors are generally required to pay at least $8.32 an hour.

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