Officials in cash-strapped Orange County have ordered the deepest cuts in staffing in years, saying they'll lay off 210 social services workers and force 4,000 other employees to take two weeks off without pay.
Not since the county's 1994 bankruptcy, when nearly 2,000 workers lost their jobs, has Orange County been in such financial straits, a result of shrinking sales tax revenue, falling property values and reduced state funding.
County officials, who still have the option to change or withdraw the plan, would not say when they will implement it. They are scheduled to meet with union officials Friday to discuss the cuts but have given no indication that they will change their plans.
The lost workers and forced furloughs would have an immediate effect on some of the county's neediest. Officials say many of the affected workers process welfare applications and that people applying for public assistance could expect longer lines and longer waits.
Local governments throughout the state have been forced to cut costs and eliminate jobs as a result of the recession, which has eroded consumer spending and the value of real estate. But Orange County is the first large county in Southern California to propose mass layoffs of workers, a move they predict may ripple across other counties in the coming year.
So far, officials in Los Angeles have been forced to take only modest steps to tighten budgets -- a hiring freeze, construction work delays -- but fear that the same problems plaguing their neighbor to the south could surface in L.A. County in the coming year.
"What Orange County is going through may foreshadow our situation if the governor and the Legislature cut any more social services," said Miguel Santana, deputy chief executive in charge of social services in Los Angeles County.
In the Inland Empire, which has been among the hardest hit areas in the nation in terms of unemployment and falling property tax revenue, neither Riverside County nor San Bernardino County has ordered widespread layoffs. Instead, budget cuts have been ordered, hiring freezes initiated and early retirement packages offered.
"We have always been fanatical in terms of avoiding layoffs," said David Wert, spokesman for San Bernardino County. "We don't want to send people away without a job."
However, Riverside County has ordered a 25% spending cut over the next four years that could potentially involve layoffs. The county is also offering early retirement packages to thousands of employees, with incentives such as subsidizing medical insurance until 2011.
The planned job reductions in Orange County were announced during a tense meeting of county and union officials Wednesday afternoon in Santa Ana. All of the planned cutbacks were in the Social Services Agency, the result of an expected $20-million reduction in state funding.
Social Services has been hit harder than other O.C. agencies because it relies heavily on state realignment funding -- primarily sales tax and vehicle license fees -- that has been heavily affected by the recession. As consumer spending declines -- new car sales are down 18% across California -- the state has less money to pass down to counties.
The county plans to lay off the 210 social service workers and force the remaining 4,000 social service employees to take two weeks off without pay before June 30, said Carl Crown, the county's human resources director. The forced work furlough will affect everyone from secretaries to Executive Director Ingrid Harita, who stands to lose $7,500 of her $197,000 salary.
By forcing everyone left in the Social Services Agency to take unpaid leave, the county hopes to avoid laying off 415 more workers, Crown said.
Orange County officials have yet to decide when to implement the cutbacks and are still in the midst of bargaining with unions that represent county workers. County officials met in closed session with county supervisors Tuesday -- receiving the go-ahead to make the cuts -- before breaking the news to workers.
Enraged union officials suggested that the county look elsewhere to save money, suggesting it cut perks for executives and managers -- including car allowances and enhanced retirement benefits -- before forcing layoffs and unpaid days off.
"If they don't step up and show good faith by taking away those perks, this is going to get very ugly, very fast," said Nick Berardino, general manager of the Orange County Employees Assn., the county's largest union.
Last week, concerned about possible layoffs, Berardino proposed that all county employees voluntarily take unpaid leave during the holidays to help avoid job cuts. He said the union would probably file a lawsuit if the county forces workers to take time off without pay.
"The people that are here are crying. The anger level is beyond anything I've ever seen," Berardino said.
John Moorlach, chairman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, said the county has been forced to make some tough decisions because of the cutback in revenue.
"The facts are the facts. We can only afford what we can afford. That means we have to start taking some measures which are unfortunate, especially in December," Moorlach said. "But we're not alone. The private sector has been dealing with this issue for some time and now it's our turn."
Many of the targeted employees are social workers and welfare eligibility technicians, who help determine whether applicants are eligible for public assistance, officials said. The cutbacks will probably mean it will take longer to process applications for public assistance, officials said.
L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said he would oppose such cutbacks in his county.
Garrett Therolf, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and David Kelly contributed to this report.