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Council Debates Benefits for Contract Workers

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

March 19 -- The lack of health benefits for contract workers became a hot topic of discussion during a City Council debate last week over outsourcing cheap clean-up work at the Santa Monica Pier.

The issue arose when the council voted 4 to 2 Tuesday to extend the use of contract janitors at the pier on a month to month basis, pending a larger policy discussion on outsourcing during the upcoming budget review.

"I think this is a serious issue," said Mayor Richard Bloom, who voted to continue contracting out services, but acknowledged the issue needs to be addressed. "Clearly for the working poor and the type of wages paid at the lower level, health care costs are extraordinary."

While the council approved a living wage of $12.10 two years ago for workers contracted by the City, health benefits were not part of the package.

Now, as the council ponders who should sweep the historic planks of the popular tourist destination, some council members are arguing that there is a moral obligation to either hire City employees or contract with companies that pay benefits.

"Here's the way I see it, and I don't think we should suger-coat it,” said Council member Ken Genser, who along with Kevin McKeown voted against the motion to continue contracting. “This is a way to hire employees without providing health insurance.

"We mandate that (contractors) pay a certain wage level, but you don't have the benefits and our hands are clean," he said. "Well, I don't think our hands are clean here."

McKeown, who is in favor of continuing the current contract to keep the Pier services running until the larger discussion takes place, said the City would be hypocritical to look after only certain workers.

"I think in the longer term, our City policy of ‘doing the right thing right,’ has to be to provide the services that we provide to our residents and visitors with the dignity of decent pay and health benefits," he said, invoking the City Managers' slogan coined last year.

"I personally am interested in examining further the wisdom of using City employees and not outsourcing this particular service,” he said.

“However, I think until we have the discussion on the whole of what our policy on outsourcing will be this might not be the situation or set of facts on which to have the discussion."

If the City chooses to go that route, it will not come cheaply, said City Manger Lamont Ewell.

"This contract has been in place for almost a decade, this is nothing new to the City," he told the council. "There are those occasions when we need that flexibility to carry out the work of the City."

By hiring full-time workers at the Pier -- something Pier officials hope will improve the unsatisfactory performance by contract workers in the past year -- the amount of money the City may need to pay could increase substantially, Ewell cautioned.

"Sometimes, it's a lot more efficient to do it without hiring additional employees, about 50 percent less this way," he said.

City staff has estimated that using contract workers would save the City nearly $196,000.

If the council addresses the issue, the discussion should take place in a broader context, Ewell said.

"I would encourage you to go through a budget process and a policy discussion on how you want to do each of these things and then we'll move forward based on council policy," he said.

Santa Monica will not be alone in grappling with health and benefit issues this year, Bloom said.

"The issue of health insurance, which is what we are talking about tonight, is the topic of discussion at the State and National level as well, and I think we'll hear a lot about it in the coming year," the mayor said.

While the new company hired to perform contract work at the pier offers sick time and a health plan employees can pay into, some council members wondered if workers could afford it.

"I want to understand how someone who's going to make $22,000 is going to be able to go out and buy health insurance," Genser said.

In the end, City taxpayers could end up covering the ultimate costs of uninsured workers, he argued.

"It the people of this community who are going to pay for their benefits, through emergency rooms and the fire department and emergency services," Genser said.


"I don't think we should suger-coat it. This is a way to hire employees without providing health insurance."
Ken Genser


r"Clearly for the working poor and the type of wages paid at the lower level, health care costs are extraordinary."
Richard Bloom



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