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THEY CAN'T BE FIRED CITY'S RULES MAKE IT NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE TO CAN WORKERS.

Byline: James Nash Staff Writer

Los Angeles city government with 37,000 employees fired only six workers for doing a poor job in the past 15 months, largely because complex procedures and elaborate civil service rules protect incompetents, a Daily News review of public records and interviews with experts inside and outside city government shows.

According to the documents obtained under the California Public Records Act, a somewhat larger group of workers - 89 in all - were fired in the same period for fraud or other crimes, chronic absenteeism and harassment. But far more common is what supervisors call the ``dance of the lemons,'' shifting low performing workers from job to job - and even that can only be done with an employee's permission.

``I cannot tell you how many times we've said, `Why is this guy still here?''' said Constance Friedman, a member of the city's Civil Service Commission and a private-sector human resources consultant.

``They're still here because everything needs to be documented and you have to go through all these procedures. It's a pain in the neck.''

There are about 37,000 civil-service employees in Los Angeles city government, including garbage haulers, secretaries and street maintenance workers. The category does not include political appointees of the mayor and City Council, police and firefighters, and the heads of city departments.

Los Angeles Personnel Department records show that 95 nonprobationary civil-service employees were fired between July 1, 2003 and Oct. 1, 2004. Only six were fired for poor performance, according to the records.

Typical of the problem is the case of a city garbageman with a poor work record who crashed his truck into a pole on the morning of Jan. 27, 2003.

His bosses at the Bureau of Sanitation thought they finally had an ironclad case for firing him.

After all, the man had been suspended from his job as a refuse collection truck operator five times since he was hired in 1987. During the same time, he received 30 written notices to correct deficiencies including unauthorized absences, failing to follow orders and making illegal turns in the city garbage truck.

His bosses cited the latest accident as part of a pattern of ``failure to improve to an overall level of competency.''

But the man still has his job.

After a hearing in which he blamed the accident on an equipment malfunction, the Civil Service Commission voted to reinstate him.

According to many current and former managers of city departments, the barriers to firing an underperforming city employee are so high that most bosses don't bother trying.

Friedman, the civil service commissioner, said the problem isn't unique to Los Angeles. Nor is it limited to civil-service jobs in the public sector. Bosses in private industry often are reluctant to fire people for poor performance alone for fear of being sued, she said.

Current and former supervisors in Los Angeles city government say bosses often ask underperforming employees to transfer to other jobs or other city departments. Bosses cannot force an employee to accept an involuntary transfer or demotion.

Samuel Sperling, a retired manager in the city Personnel Department and Department of Public Works, said the city has few tools to reward good performance or punish poor performance. The same system that makes it difficult to distinguish good employees from mediocre ones also stymies bosses who want to weed out poor performers, Sperling said.

``Unless (managers) have kept really good notes and documented specific instances, they're never going to get it through the Civil Service Commission, especially if (the employee is) represented by a union,'' Sperling said. ``That's why you have poor-performing people working in the civil service system for 25 years and promoting once or twice and then retiring. It's a major reason for inefficiency.''

Mayor James Hahn's office declined to make anyone available to discuss his view of the situation.

Civil-service employees in Los Angeles are represented by unions that advocate for the employees and wield considerable influence at City Hall.

The sanitation truck driver who had the 2003 accident was represented by an official from Service Employees International Union Local 347, the largest city employee union. The union representative, James Lauderdale, wrote that the local ``makes no defense of his infractions'' but said the collision wasn't reason enough to fire him.

Lauderdale argued during at the Civil Service Commission hearing in May 2004 that because the incident that precipitated the firing was an accident, the employee was unwilling to accept even a suspension instead of termination.

The city hearing examiner in the case, George Liskow, wrote that discussions on employee performance often are framed in terms of the employee's rights.

``In such an environment, one can easily lose sight of the matching component of the equation, that is to say, the obligations of the employee,'' Liskow wrote.

The general manager of SEIU Local 347, Julie Butcher, a strong ally of the mayor's, said the union doesn't coddle bad employees but holds the city to high standards of proof to fire someone.

``There is no civil service rule or union rule on the planet that will protect people who do a bad job,'' Butcher said. ``The union is not that good that it can protect (poor-performing) people if management does its job.''

Of the 95 firings in the period reviewed, 39 were appealed to the Civil Service Commission, a body appointed by the mayor to judge cases of employees appealing discipline. The panel voted in nearly two-thirds of those instances to sustain the firing of the employee or accept a settlement leading to the employee's resignation, according to commission documents.

City personnel managers say that given the hurdles to firing a worker for poor performance, managers sometimes follow the path of least resistance and discharge employees for other offenses, such as unexcused absences or falsifying documents.

City personnel managers said bosses need to develop airtight cases against employees before recommending them for termination. Subpar work performance often is difficult to document and may also raise charges of discriminatory treatment when an employee can argue that co-workers are performing at a similar level, the personnel managers noted.

Before recommending an employee for firing, a boss must exhaust a range of other remedies, from additional training, reassignments, notices to correct deficiencies and suspensions. Under a 1975 California Supreme Court decision, civil-service employees are treated as though they own their jobs, and bosses cannot deprive them of that property without due process.

Instead of firing someone for poor performance, managers often look for other reasons. Workplace fraud, absenteeism and harassment accounted for 74 of the 95 firings in the period covered by this review.

The numbers mirror those in other governments with civil-service protections. The Houston Chronicle reported earlier this year that of 20,000 employees of the Texas city, 84 were fired in 2003. Of the 84, only 19 were let go for performance reasons, the newspaper found.

Personnel officials in New York and Chicago said they don't track terminations by cause.

In the federal government, none of the 486,000 employees of eight Cabinet-level departments were fired for poor performance in the five years preceding June 2003, according to federal data cited by the Federal Times in 2003. Of the federal departments that fired employees for poor performance during those five years, fewer than 1 percent of employees were fired in all departments other than the Agriculture Department, the Federal Times reported.

Despite those numbers, the more significant reforms to civil-service job protections in recent years originated in Washington. About half of all federal employees have been removed from civil service, including workers in the Department of Homeland Security created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Morley Winograd, who spearheaded then-Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review in the late 1990s, said Los Angeles' civil service system is typical in government. Winograd now is an associate professor of business at the University of Southern California and is a consultant to Hahn on priority-based budgeting.

Winograd said governments at all levels should explore reforms to civil-service systems that make it virtually impossible for managers to remove underperforming workers.

``It's not just a drag on the group because you have someone who's doing a bad job, it's a drag on the entire system because it affects morale,'' Winograd said. ``There are so many appeals built into the process that (a manager spends) a lifetime trying to get rid of an employee when they have other things to do.''

Councilman Dennis Zine, a retired traffic cop who spent his whole adult life working for the city and now chairs the council's personnel committee, said city leaders work closely with organized labor on improving working conditions and service to the public. Zine said the civil-service process ensures that employees are not fired arbitrarily.

``There's a whole process in place,'' he said. ``The civil-service process has a fairness doctrine.''

Zine said some underperforming employees leave voluntarily, transfer to other positions where they perform better, or are flushed out of the system during their probationary periods.

Los Angeles Personnel Department data shows that 21 city employees other than police and firefighters agreed to resign rather than be fired between July 2003 and this month. The records did not note the causes of the proposed firings.

James Nash, (213) 978-0390

james.nash(at)dailynews.com

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SOURCE: City of Los Angeles

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Oct 24, 2004
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