When I see a City of Santa Monica truck, its logo a swirl of ocean, I feel proud and reassured knowing my taxpayer dollars are invested in the public sector, in hiring workers who work for us, the residents, not a for-profit private contractor whose driving motive is to make money, sometimes at the expense of inferior service, such as dirty stench-ridden bathrooms or wilted dying trees.
On Tuesday night the Department of Public Works will ask our city council to – in an up or down vote — approve cumulative private for-profit contracts in the hundreds of thousands of dollars now, but if renewed over multiple years total almost $21-million dollars. The City Council will consider outsourcing custodial jobs at the beach, the pier, Civic Center, city offices, and repair and detailing at the Big Blue Bus – work currently and previously performed by loyal hard-working city employees with clear lines of accountability leading straight to City Hall. Got a problem? You know whom to call.
If staff’s recommendations are approved, however, these lines of accountability will look more like a sea of ambiguity, with pages and pages of private contracts subject to interpretation and litigation in the courts. Got a problem? Call that guy. No, call that guy. No, call that guy.
City staff argues in their reports that outsourcing or privatizing the public sector saves money. Not so.
Consider the external costs involved in the contractor controversy in 2013 when the city had to hire an outside auditor to investigate the work of a private contractor accused of planting dying trees near the beach.
Consider the external costs of hiring managerial and legal staff earning more than $200,000 a year to oversee the competitive bidding process, contract writing and implementation, and investigation of contract violations.
Consider the cost of property taxes diverted from funding schools to bolstering county hospitals, the first and last refuge of a privatized employee with no health care benefits.
Consider the political cost of outsourcing work to non-union employers who can hire and fire workers at will, with no regard to collective bargaining rights or due process. Some argue privatization is a nationwide strategy to undercut the union movement, which fights for better wages, safe-working conditions, and essential benefits needed to survive.
Finally, consider the cost of inferior service because if the bid is too low the only way for a private contractor to reap a profit is to cut corners – hire fewer workers than needed, buy cheaper supplies.
Ah, the temptation.
Supporters of privatization argue it will save the city in mounting pension costs. Rather than punishing the workers at the bottom of the salary chain, let’s examine how to economize at the top by scaling back salaries of city managers and attorneys.
Over 100 managerial and legal employees at SM City Hall earn between $200,000 and $300,000 a year, while the city treats its beach bathroom workers – front line soldiers protecting our public health against bacterial infection – as pawns in a race to the bottom. Think Wal-Mart.
I’ve personally walked the beaches and talked to beach bathroom workers who are fearful of losing their jobs if their work is outsourced. These workers have been cleaning our toilets, hosing cement walks, sorting litter, and lifting heavy equipment for upwards of 10 years – sometimes longer — without health care, sick pay, holidays, etc. — all because the city has misclassified these full-time “at will” workers as part-time and temporary.
In the words of one city worker fearful of outsourcing, “We work hard, but they don’t give us any love.”
Rather than adding insult to injury by outsourcing beach custodial jobs, our city should hire these hard-working people, virtually all people of color, as permanent full-time employees with health care benefits. Instead, after a decade or longer of exploiting them, the city wants to skirt the Affordable Care Act by outsourcing their labor. I imagine this is what a lot of these new contracts are about — skirting the health care law, while shifting health care costs to LA County hospitals, where taxpayer costs escalate to pay for delayed medical treatment. Crisis management.
Under the Affordable Care Act, a business must provide health care coverage to employees working 30 hours or more per week. I hope we’re not going to continue hearing about 29-hour a week custodians.
Show up at Santa Monica City Hall on Tuesday night at 6 p.m.
Stop the Wal-Martization of Santa Monica.
Marcy Winograd is a former congressional peace candidate who learned about labor struggles volunteering for Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers union in the grape fields of California. She teaches English to special education students at Venice High School.