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'DROP on steroids.' L.A. city workers double dip by retiring and getting hired at DWP, union alleges

This Wednesday, March 18, 2015 photo shows the front of the headquarters of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in downtown Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power lost up to $88 million in commercial billings because of the botched rollout of a computer billing system. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
The front of the headquarters of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in downtown Los Angeles. (Associated Press)

Some L.A. city employees are "double dipping" by retiring and then starting a new job at the Department of Water and Power while collecting a pension for the first job, according to a union leader.

Gus Corona, head of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, which represents nearly all DWP workers, said the double dipping harms the city's finances and the DWP's retirement plan, and that it came about in violation of the union bargaining process.

In a cease-and-desist letter to City Atty. Hydee Feldstein Soto on March 11, Corona called the situation "DROP on steroids" — a reference to a police and firefighter program that allows participants to collect their salaries and pensions simultaneously for the last five years of their careers.

Read more: Veteran L.A. cops and firefighters can work one shift, then collect double pay for years

Corona wrote that his union “will not accept this or any threat to the city’s financial health, the financial health of DWP employees’ retirement plans or to the City’s obligation to bargain in good faith.”

The city attorney's office has "unilaterally changed its interpretation" of the city charter, Corona wrote, allowing workers to double dip despite a ban against employees in the Los Angeles City Employees' Retirement System taking another paid job with the city.

So far, Corona said in an interview, four to six city employees have retired from a LACERS position, then taken a new salaried position with DWP, which has its own pension system.

But in his cease-and-desist letter, he predicted "cascading effects," with employees rushing to take advantage and city taxpayers footing the bill.

"It would spark a flood of retirements from LACERS-covered positions, exacerbating the already extreme exodus of expert and experienced employees from key positions," Corona wrote.

City employees who transfer from a LACERS position to DWP would also be able to collect a DWP pension when they retire, Corona said.

A representative for Service Employees International Union 721, a union that represents civilian city employees who are covered by LACERS, declined to comment on the cease-and-desist letter.

The city attorney’s office said it is not unlawful to retire from a LACERS position and begin a DWP position, noting that the reverse has long been permitted.

“Under the Charter, the hard-working employees of the Department of Water and Power have, for more than 80 years, been able to retire, collect a pension, and then seek further employment with the City in LACERS-covered positions. This decades-old practice is not unlawful,” the city attorney’s office said in a statement.

“Just as DWP retirees have done for decades in other City positions, LACERS retirees can play a key role by bringing their expertise to positions with DWP,” the statement said.

Some of the dispute between the IBEW Local 18 and the city attorney's office boils down to whether the DWP is included in the city charter's prohibition against taking another city job after retirement.

In his cease-and-desist letter, Corona argued that a "city" job includes positions with the DWP.

IBEW Local 18 is also filing an unfair practices charge with the Los Angeles Employee Relations Board for the city's alleged failure to notify and "meet and confer" with the union about its revised interpretation of the charter.

The city attorney’s office said it plans to respond to Corona's letter in writing.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.