DWP: L.A.'S BEST JOBS AVERAGE UTILITY EMPLOYEE EARNS $76,949 PER YEAR MORE THAN 13% OF DEPARTMENT'S WORKERS ARE PAID $100,000 AND UP.
As the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power seeks a hefty taxpayer rate hike, a Daily News review of salary data shows the average utility worker makes $76,949 a year -- or nearly 20 percent more than the average civilian city worker.
More than 1,140 of the utility's employees -- or about 13 percent -- take home more than $100,000 a year. And General Manager Ron Deaton, who is on medical leave, rakes in $344,624 a year -- making him the city's highest- paid worker.
DWP salaries are on average higher than city and far higher than private-sector workers' even as the utility has come under fire for recent power outages and another round of rate hikes: A 9 percent, three-year electric-rate hike and a 6 percent, two-year water-rate hike.
The salary disparities have emerged in recent days as a crucial issue in intense negotiations with six unions representing nearly 22,000 city workers -- about half the work force -- whose contracts expire today.
"To the average person, they're going to go, 'Wow, that's a great salary and they're charging me more,'" said City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who is among council members who have asked the utility to justify its rate-hike request.
"People who are regular folks will say, 'Gosh darn it, where is all the money being spent? I lost power for five days, and I had to throw out my groceries."'
While DWP workers have long been some of the highest-paid in the city, salaries got even more lucrative two years ago with a five-year contract guaranteeing 16.8 percent raises and up to 28 percent depending on inflation.
So far, that escalation clause hasn't kicked in. But Councilman Greig Smith -- who opposed the contract with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, said the council needs to take over future DWP labor negotiations.
"It's exactly what I said would happen," Smith said. "To give your DWP employees a greater average increase in salaries than all the other unions are getting ... I said all you're doing is making the disparity worse, and you're going to cause more problems in the future."
DWP Commission President David Nahai said the wage disparities are historical and rate hikes remain necessary to fix an aging electrical system.
"We're facing a deteriorating infrastructure, and we have to address that," said Nahai, predicting most people would rather pay a little more more on their electric bills than risk more outages.
"If not, the cost to the city in economic losses, health costs and human misery could far outweigh what's paid to the work force."
While DWP's salary payouts total $661 million annually, Nahai said it's needed to retain employees, about 40 percent of whom are near retirement age.
The DWP also wants to hire another 768 workers to upgrade the power system, and it must compete for those workers against private utilities that can pay even more for skilled workers.
Brian D'Arcy, business manager of IBEW Local 18 that represents 8,080 DWP workers, defended the pay scale and said DWP workers' jobs are unlike any others.
"It's a much more industrial environment, much tougher work, more complicated and more skill that's involved. There's not a lot of room for error over here," D'Arcy said. "Even among the clerical workers, the predominant clerical is customer service representatives.
"I wouldn't want to do their jobs, take complaints."
But Jack Humphreville, a member of the Neighborhood Councils' DWP oversight committee, predicted ratepayers will resent the salary levels.
"I don't think the public is going to be overjoyed," Humphreville said. "It's just another example of what's going on at City Hall with the unions dominating the political environment with huge campaign contributions."
IBEW was a major contributor to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa during his mayoral campaign, and he signed off on its last contract despite the controversy shortly after taking office.
"DWP needs to get its labor costs under control -- not only the cash but the benefit portion," Humphreville said.
A spokesman said Villaraigosa has not taken a public position on the utility's rate-increase request.
"(But the mayor) is committed to addressing the issue of parity in a fiscally responsible manner," spokesman Matt Szabo said.
According to a study by Huron Consulting Group earlier this year, the total cost per full-time employee in fiscal 2007 was $142,400 a year including health care, death benefits and disability, workers' compensation, medical services, employee health benefits and training.
That's expected to rise to $151,000 in just five years.
"The increase in cost per employee is primarily due to wage increases dictated by the union contract," the study said.
Meanwhile, even though a city report concluded nearly four years ago that the pay disparity between DWP workers and civilians in some jobs was as much as 55 percent, the Daily News review of current DWP salaries shows the issue has remained unaddressed.
"It was disparate then, and it's still disparate," said Tom Coultas, assistant city administrative officer who has been involved in labor negotiations with the six city unions in recent days.
"The issue of the disparity is one of the things we're talking about, a lot."
Talks are under way
The coalition in current negotiations includes Service Employees International Union Local 721, representing 9,160 workers from custodians and trash-truck drivers to street services employees.
It also represents 9,000 American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 36 employees including clerical workers, librarians, professional medical employees, Community Redevelopment Agency workers, and mostly part-time Recreation and Parks employees.
Other unions include the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 501; Laborers International Union Local 777; Los Angeles/Orange County Building & Construction Trades Council; and Teamsters Local 911.
Barbara Maynard, spokeswoman for the coalition, declined to say what contract terms are being sought but said officials have been negotiating nearly around the clock.
So far, Los Angeles police and fire unions have negotiated more for their employees at an average annual salary of $87,237.
But steady salary increases at the DWP, including years when other city employees got little extra, have created disparities across the board:
DWP painters make up to $78,905 a year -- while those in the city's General Services Department earn $61,971.
The utility's three locksmiths make $79,176 annually, while those in General Services top out at $62,974.
An LAPD welder makes $64,164, while a DWP welder makes between $78,822 and $81,703.
A Recreation and Parks tree surgeon earns up to $52,429; at DWP, a tree surgeon starts at $57,294 and can make up to $71,200.
Five DWP chemists make more than $100,000, while a senior chemist in the Bureau of Sanitation tops out at $87,883.
Civil engineers in the city make no more than $103,376; at the DWP, eight make more than $122,000.
But DWP officials say they have to pay employees at a rate comparable to other private utilities.
And in an August letter to city officials, DWP acting General Manager Robert Rozanski defended the salary structure, saying all salaries for Southern California workers are generally higher than the national standard.
Rozanski said a DWP electrical engineer associate starts at $65,400, which is comparable to a Southern California Edison engineer at $68,400. A Glendale engineer assistant makes $62,000, and a Pasadena electrical engineer makes $64,800.
The utility provided comparitive salary figures for Edison, including 35 employees who make more than $1 million, and 800 employees who make more than $125,000.
"Our managers and specialized positions may appear to be well-compensated, but they are not when measured against comparable utilities where they could make much more doing the same job," the utility said in a statement to the Daily News.
Now, Councilman Dennis Zine, who chairs the Personnel Committee and voted against the DWP contract two years ago, said it's virtually impossible to address the disparity all at once.
"There's not going to be a 20 percent increase (for other city workers)," Zine said. "There has to be a reasonable solution and conclusion that is fair and that won't bankrupt the city."
photo, box, chart
(color) no caption (DWP building)
How DWP salaries stack up
SOURCES: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Glendale, Metro Division; City of Los Angeles; DWP
SOURCE: Daily News research
Gregg Miller/Staff Artist