Los Angeles’s $100,000 Carpenters Show Clout of Utility’s Union

California utility workers
California utility workers. Photographer: Ken James/Bloomberg

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had the highest-paid public employees in the city, earning on average 40 percent more than other municipal workers, even those with identical job titles.

The utility’s 10,782 employees earned an average of $96,805 annually in 2010, the most recent year for which data was available, according to compensation statistics provided by state Controller John Chiang. The city’s 44,781 other employees took home $68,822 on average.

From nurses to prison guards, California public employees earn more than their counterparts in other states -- even as it has grappled with budget deficits that forced layoffs of teachers and cut services for children and the elderly. In Los Angeles, water and power workers are paid more than their city counterparts because of the political clout of their union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, according to Robert Stern, a political analyst who ran the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles for 28 years.

“They have money and leverage and it shows,” Stern said in a telephone interview. “The union gets what it wants.”

Of the 123 jobs at the Los Angeles utility that were comparable to other city positions, including garage attendants, cabinet makers and surveyors, water and power workers were the highest-paid in 104 categories, or 85 percent.

“Bloomberg’s review compares apples and oranges and fails to account for the many factors that can lead to differences in compensation,” Joe Ramallo, a department spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

Largest Municipal Utility

The department, which provides water and electricity to an area with 4.1 million people, is the largest municipally-owned utility in the U.S. Water and power revenue for the fiscal year that ended June 30 totaled $3.9 billion.

“We are continuously reviewing our operations and identifying ways to cut costs and work more efficiently,” Ramallo said. “We cut nearly $500 million from our budget over three years by instituting a hiring freeze, reducing staff, and cutting overtime.”

The Los Angeles City Council has scheduled a final vote today on a 2.9 percent rate increase for water customers to pay for infrastructure improvements. The utility is considering rate increases for typical residential customers of 6.7 percent annually for water and 8.4 percent annually for electricity over the next three years, according to presentations the department gave last year.

Councilmember Jan Perry, who until last month headed the council committee that oversees the department, said the utility should review its operational costs before the council approves higher rates. Her motion to that effect last week died for lack of a second from any fellow councilmember.

‘Cost-Reduction Efforts’

“The general manager of the department needs to know that the City Council will support him in his cost-reduction efforts,” Perry said in a telephone interview. “If this body cannot demonstrate that we will support him in mitigating rate increases by reducing operating costs, then we are going to continue on this path without end.”

The electrical workers were the third-biggest contributors to candidates for citywide offices in 2009, according to a study by Stern’s group. Their $267,842 trailed only the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents peace officers, and the AFL-CIO, with 800,000 unionized workers for both public and private employers in Los Angeles County.

Perry’s running for mayor next year to replace Antonio Villaraigosa, who can’t run again because of term limits. Brian D’Arcy, business manager for IBEW Local 18 in Los Angeles, didn’t respond to calls and e-mail requesting comment.

Ratepayer Advocate

Frederick Pickel, an energy consultant approved last month by the council as the city’s first ratepayer advocate, said his initial focus will be on the department’s capital costs.

He’ll “eventually benchmark operational expenses against others in the water and power utility industry,” Pickel said in an e-mail response to questions.

The Department of Water and Power’s 25 air-conditioning mechanics earned an average of $102,878, compared with $84,060 for the 16 people with a similar job description at the harbor department and $76,198 for 10 at the general services department, which maintains the city’s buildings and vehicles.

The utility department’s two audio-visual technicians made an average of $147,853; two at the zoo with similar titles, $76,353.

$102,732 Versus $65,201

Water and Power’s 50 carpenters were paid an average of $102,732 in 2010, more than twice the national norm. That compares with $65,201 at the general services department and $82,999 at the airports department. On average, the nation’s 620,000 carpenters collected $43,890 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Two auto painters at water and power averaged $109,192, compared with $59,901 for the three at the fire department. Water and power had eight cabinet makers that earned an average of $101,840. The police department’s cabinet maker made $66,449.

Six water and power garage attendants made an average of $74,408; the six at the airports department, $44,309. Nationally, parking lot attendants were paid $21,250 on average, according to the labor bureau.

The department’s 14 land-surveying assistants earned an average of $123,433; the 19 with that title at the public works department, $73,009. Surveyors got $58,140 on average nationally in 2010.

While unions negotiate separate terms for individual categories of workers, the electrical union bargains for all of its members at once, giving administrative assistants the same bump in pay as more technical trades, said Tom Coultas, a labor specialist for the city.

The union negotiated annual cost-of-living increases of as much as 5.9 percent in recent years at the Department of Water and Power, the highest salary boost of any city employees, according to a chart provided by his office.

“They are viewed as the Cadillac,” said Jack Humphreville, who chairs a neighborhood advocacy group that monitors the department. “All the other unions say, ‘We want to be paid like the DWP.’”

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