Oct. 31--Talks broke down late Monday between Los Angeles County and the union representing half of its workforce, meaning that social workers, probation officers, nurses, janitors and others will vote to decide whether to go on strike for the first time in years.
The 55,000 members of the Service Employees International Union Local 721 could walk off their jobs within days.
SEIU spurned the county's offer of a 6 percent pay increase over 18 months, saying that would be wiped out by an expected increase in their out-of-pocket healthcare costs starting next year.
"It's a joke," said Jessi Gonzales, a social worker and member of the union bargaining team.
She said the union's initial demand was a 12 percent pay increase. Its members, whose median income is about $43,000, have not had a raise in five years.
Another sticking point in the negotiations was the county's refusal to scale back the excessive caseloads of social workers.
"We do not want to strike; however, if that's something we have to do so that we can ensure the safety and well-being of the community in the long run, then it's something we're willing to do," Gonzales said.
County Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka added the county offered 6 percent to all of its unions. He said everyone, including firefighters and deputy sheriffs, district attorneys and engineers, has accepted it, except for the SEIU.
"Given that we recently exited a major recession, what we're offering now is financially responsible and reasonable," he said.
Fujioka noted each 1 percent pay increase under the proposal would cost the county $42 million to $43 million a year.
He denied claims the county's offer would result in a net loss for the workers. Aside from the 6 percent pay raise, Fujioka said, the county is also willing to cover the "majority" of the increase in health care costs -- if they choose the less expensive medical plans, and if they agree to retiree health care reform for future employees.
"What's on the table is what the county can afford right now," he said. "After that 18-month period, we can reassess the situation."
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