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Fairness Dictates 

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000
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Without putting the county‘s finances even slightly out of joint, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors this week managed to raise by 50 cents the $6.25 hourly salaries of its 74,000 home health-care workers. This came despite the state’s refusal to pay what county officials say is Sacramento‘s own fair share of the workers’ wages.

That wage now stands at a not-quite-princely $6.75. Which is 75 cents less than the workers were promised last year, when the state and county still saw eye to eye on these matters. Since then, depending on whom you talk to, either the state or the county has decided to cut back on its promised support for a higher wage.

The increase voted this week did not much please the workers‘ union representatives. According to Service Employees International Union (SEIU) spokeswoman Lisa Hubbard, ”It was an outrageous collection of nickels and dimes.“

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But to the board members, the blame for the parsimony belonged in Sacramento. Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said if the state had done as it did last year and picked up its 80 percent share, wages would have gone up to $7.50 an hour. But, as it turned out, the state did not make up the 75-cent difference between the promised wage and the one delivered this week.

In his message on the current budget, Governor Gray Davis asked the counties to step up their support of health care at home to a higher level of 35 percent, leaving the state with a 65 percent share of the home-care wage not already paid for by federal aid.

”A record surplus notwithstanding, this year the state . . . reduced its participation to 65 percent,“ Yaroslavsky said. Paying this increase would cost the county an extra $18 million over the $13 million cost of the raise the board just voted for. Yaroslavsky added that the extra charge to the county was particularly unfair, since ”the state saves money on home care,“ insofar as having home-care workers take care of the bedridden keeps such patients out of nursing homes -- the costs of which are paid by the state. The 50-cent increase would be effective in November.

The state has budgeted $100 million to meet its promised 65 percent share of the match, which would raise salaries closer to the $7.50 an hour promised early this year if the county went along with taking on a 35 percent share. But the Legislature is in recess until the end of the year, and no decision as to whether to accommodate the county’s new demand can be made until at least that time. Yaroslavsky said he hoped that the state would return to the old 80-20 formula in next year‘s budget.

Even in its modest, half-dollar-an-hour form, the motion’s passage involved some devious inner-board politics; insiders said that there was a serious question of whether it might pass even after the weekly meeting began Tuesday morning.

But the insiders said there was a sense of obligation by the panel to the workers that led to the 4-1 final vote. This was because the board last year created the bargaining entity that got the workers -- who supply home housekeeping and basic health care to 100,000 invalids all over the county -- both its first union and its first over-the-minimum-wage raise to $6.25.

(Another factor may have been the union‘s level of activism, with dozens of care-worker demonstrators arrested on county grounds over the past week.)

Since then, however, the state and the county have split on the wage-share issue. The split stalled a long-awaited raise all through the summer, as Local 434b union members demonstrated in increasing numbers.

But the board majority, still hoping it could persuade Governor Gray Davis to dip into the state’s $13 billion surplus, resisted the powerful union‘s pressure until this week, when Yaroslavsky, assisted by fellow liberal Supervisor Gloria Molina, submitted their compromise measure. According to the motion, the half-dollar raise ended up costing the county no more than it would have spent to raise the workers’ wages under the previous salary-share arrangement.

The SEIU‘s Hubbard termed the measure mean-spirited. ”All the state’s other counties have raised their contributions to 35 percent -- and beyond,“ she said. She asserted that many of the counties also now paid higher wages than Los Angeles County. ”San Francisco pays $9.70 an hour,“ she said, ”plus benefits.“

This county has promised a benefits package to its health-care workers, but this has not yet been brought into existence, according to Hubbard.

The health-care-worker pay compromise this week was the latest example of the kind of hard-nosed and tight-fisted fiscal-political engineering Yaroslavsky‘s managed to accomplish on the board in recent years.

He just couldn’t do things on this scale in his previous seat on the City Council. And so it wasn‘t, perhaps, that

much of a surprise to hear recently that he was finally, officially no longer interested in running for the office of mayor of the city of Los Angeles. According to my recollection, it’s the third time he‘s turned his back on the region’s big race, and quite likely, the last time he‘ll consider it. The fact is, he seems to many people to function better in the mayor-free environment of the Board of Supervisors than he ever did at City Hall.

Said Yaroslavsky: ”There comes a point in one’s personal and political life when you get more satisfaction out of doing meaningful things then by merely being perceived as doing meaningful things. I love what I do; you make and enforce policy on major issues like welfare, health and land use; no one but the mayor gets [to work with] this wide a range of issues.‘’

And unlike city government, he continued, the supes have a jurisdictional-power monopoly: “There are no checks and balances here, but this can be a plus if you want to get things done.”

More than he could as mayor? “I personally think that here, I‘m making more of a difference in ways that I want to make a difference.’‘ These include human-focused matters that lie outside the city’s range -- such as children‘s services, health care and the general improvement of the lot of the 30 percent of county residents who have no health insurance. Yaroslavsky said: ”If these people all had a county to themselves, that would still be the third largest county in the country.“

You get the sense that Yaroslavsky now feels he’s begun to outgrow the raffish and sometimes controversial figure he cast in the city. Where, for all of his accomplishments, he was one of the few council members ever to be censured by his colleagues, and where, as chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee, he was as renowned for his sharp deal-mongering as for his fiscal sense. A little self-consciously, he now refers to City Hall as ”the scene of the crime.

“Meanwhile, there‘s my effort to see changes in the county charter. There’s an entire agenda of changes that can be made.‘’

And what if a pending state initiative imposes supervisorial term limits that would have Yaroslavsky off the board by 2006? Or even if, should the limits measure fail, he decides not to run again that year, at age 57?

There are other options, outside electoral politics, he said, noting his longstanding interest in international and national matters. ”I‘ll still be a fire breather,“ he said.

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