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