Out of Control Policy Blog

Public Employees Get Manicures, Lap Dances on the Job in L.A.

Here's something from the "Your Tax Dollars at Work" file that should make you mad whether you live in L.A. or not. A recent Los Angeles Times article discussed a KCBS investigation that revealed Department of Water and Power employees drinking and driving and going to strip clubs while on the job. (See the CBS 2 News investigative report, including undercover video of the workers' transgressions, here.) The report comes just after the agency increased electric rates and gave its workers a raise. The Times article pretty much speaks for itself.

First, we had DWP linemen caught on tape passing on-the-clock hours in a strip club and driving their utility trucks around town while drinking beer from paper towel-wrapped cans.

Next came allegations that doctors and nurses at the county-run Olive View hospital got their nails filed and eyebrows waxed on the job at a makeshift beauty salon set up on ventilators in a ward for fragile newborns.

[. . .]

Their mistakes hit us in the pocketbook, through the multimillion-dollar judgments we'll owe if a beer-swilling linesman runs over somebody or if a vulnerable infant dies in a hospital ward that reeks of nail polish fumes.

It's not just a question of dollars, though. Incidents like this reflect a lack of pride and professionalism and a troubling sense of entitlement: lap dances and manicures as on-duty perks.

In fact, one DWP employee told KCBS that strip club visits are a "tradition" among linesmen when it's too rainy to work.

[. . .]

San Fernando Valley Councilman Dennis Zine said he's gotten an earful in his district.

"The people in my community are outraged to see what municipal employees are doing," he said. "It's a real slap in our face. We just had our rates increased . . . and they're out there drinking, partying, having a good ol' time at taxpayers' expense."

If the DWP's investigation confirms what the video appears to show, the employees should be fired and their supervisors called on the carpet, said Zine, who heads the council's Personnel Committee.

"They're making a fortune. . . . They think: 'We can do whatever we want. Nobody can mess with us.' It's the attitude, the culture. And we need to send a message that this won't be tolerated."

This is not to suggest that such things never happen in the private sector, but there are some differences in poor employee behavior in the public and private sectors, and in employers' responses to such behavior. First, anyone caught doing such things in the private sector would be fired on the spot, rather than be allowed to continue to collect a paycheck while "internal investigations" are conducted. (Why an investigation must be conducted in the aforementioned cases when there is clear video proof of the employees' misdeeds is anyone's guess.) Furthermore, such a "culture" of misbehavior is much less likely in the private sector because employers have strong incentives to ensure that employees are productive and don't expose them to unnecessary liability so that they don't lose money or end up being put out of business. That pressure does not exist in the public sector, where government agencies are protected monopolies and their budgets are determined by political jockeying instead of how well they are actually serving their customers. Finally, if a private company does have some "bad apples" the damage is limited to that company and customers can always choose to take their business elsewhere. If the bad apples are government employees, however, it effects everyone.

These examples provide just a few more (of many) reasons to privatize and shrink the size of government, and open up the remaining government services to competition with the private sector.

Adam Summers is Senior Policy Analyst


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