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Sheriff Vows to Suspend Deputies in Sickout

Baca plans to discipline those who say they are ill and don't provide proof. Four courthouses closed Tuesday after 245 officers called in sick.

October 08, 2003|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca vowed to suspend any deputies who are absent without proof of illness after 245 more called in sick Tuesday despite a court order against the "blue flu."

"It is a blatantly illegal act," said Baca, who warned that he would not hesitate to ask a judge to jail his own deputies for contempt of court if necessary.

"Deputies should not fool around with the law. When your job is to enforce the law, you cannot be breaking the law," Baca said in his toughest comments to date in the wildcat strike, which is in its third week.

About 15% of deputies called in ill on the day shift Tuesday. Two Pomona courthouses, the West Covina courthouse and El Monte courthouse were closed after 46 of their 74 deputies called in sick.

The disruptions had largely been confined to jail-related operations, but on Tuesday 199 deputies assigned to patrolling from Lennox, Carson, Century, Compton, Industry, West Hollywood, Marina del Rey and East Los Angeles stations failed to report for work. All 25 deputies assigned to the day shift of the Century station called in sick. Baca said supervisors, detectives and deputies were held over from earlier shifts.

"If you call in sick, you are going to pay the price," Baca said. "While I share the deputies' concerns, you cannot be endangering public safety."

Last week, a judge ordered the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and all deputies to halt a series of wildcat sickouts that had created havoc in the courts and jail system.

The union has insisted it has not organized the work stoppage. Jeff Monical, a spokesman for the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, would not comment Tuesday.

The union and the county have been at an impasse in contract negotiations since earlier this year. Deputies are seeking a 3% pay raise over each of the next three years, plus other improvements in benefits.

In winning the court order, county lawyers relied on a 1989 appellate court opinion that declared all strikes and work stoppages by law enforcement illegal because they pose an inherent risk to public safety.

But union lawyers argued against that decision, saying the appellate judges failed to follow the proper test for legality established by the California Supreme Court in 1985, when it gave public employees the right to strike.

In that case, the high court said such strikes were legal "unless or until it is clearly demonstrated that [they create] a substantial and imminent threat to the health and safety of the public."

In issuing the temporary restraining order against the walkout, Orange County Superior Court Judge John Watson ruled last week that the sickout was illegal under either of those legal precedents.

Since the order, Baca said, about 80% of the 7,000 deputies have been served with notice, a prerequisite for a contempt citation.

Baca said he understands why deputies are angry, but said the county cannot afford the raises being sought.

"There is no money, no matter how you cut it," Baca said in an interview. A 3% raise, such as the Los Angeles Police Department recently won, would cost the county $38 million it does not have, he said.

In the last two years, Baca said his budget requests have been cut by $84 million and $82 million, respectively.

"I understand they are frustrated," Baca said in an interview. "I am empathetic with their concerns. They do more with less every day. No one works harder than Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies. But the county is in such a tough spot financially."

A hearing on the county's request for a preliminary injunction is set for Tuesday in Santa Ana. Principal Deputy County Counsel Rick Brouwer said he is reviewing doctors' notes and other documents to determine if enough evidence exists to seek contempt citations against deputies. Brouwer said he does not expect to seek disciplinary measures against deputies until after next week's hearing.

Brouwer said Baca is working in conjunction with the Board of Supervisors because the board, not Baca, negotiates labor contracts. "He does not want to do something that jeopardizes the negotiations," Brouwer said.

Baca said he would ask the county supervisors today to give him the power to suspend deputies who skip work for two days without consulting the union.

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