Employees and Neighbors. (Legal Briefs)

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Environmental health programs such as programs designed to regulate food safety, onsite sewage disposal, swimming pool maintenance, solid or hazardous waste disposal, and housing regulations, depend on inspections. To conduct an inspection, the inspector must be transported to the site. Three options are available for transportation: 1) public transportation, 2) an agency-supplied vehicle, and 3) a personal vehicle. The first case discussed in this month's column addresses the question of whether an agency can require usage of a personal vehicle

Sometimes health inspections uncover deficiencies whose solution may affect employee safety If an operator corrects a health deficiency but the correction might threaten employee health and an environmental health inspector has concurred in the correction, is the health inspector or the agency the inspector represents responsible if an employee actually is injured? Case 2 concerns a catastrophe at a poultry-processing plant in North Carolina that prompted this question.

Finally, does a neighbor have a legal right to object to the type of sewage system used at his neighbors' home? An issue of this type arose in Spokane, Washington, and is discussed in Case 3.

Case #1: County May Require Usage of Personal Vehicles (1)

A Memorandum of Understanding between the Los Angeles County Association of Environmental Health Specialists and Los Angeles County expired on September 30, 2000. The association is a union representing 550 employees of the Department of Health Services who inspect restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, motels, other facilities, and drinking-water systems. Despite negotiations, a new agreement could not be reached. So the county unilaterally determined that environmental health employee fringe benefits would be the same as those of AFL-CIO Local 660.

Article 31 of the AFL-CIO Local 660 agreement contained mileage reimbursement rates and other benefits associated with driving personal vehicles. It also granted any department head "the right to determine which employees are required to provide a private vehicle to carry out the County services."

The head of the Department of Health Services ordered environmental health employees to use their private vehicles for inspections. When 155 employees refused, they were threatened with suspension. The next day, the union filed suit requesting an injunction. In court, the county claimed that for over 30 years employees had been advised that use of their vehicles for inspections was a condition of employment. In addition, the county argued that without employees' use of personal vehicles, inspections would decrease 33 to 50 percent, and a serious financial burden would be placed on the county to obtain government vehicles. The trial court agreed with the county and denied the injunction. The union appealed.

The court first looked at the Los Angeles County Charter. The charter did not prohibit the county from requiring employees to use their personal vehicles on county business. The charter did, however, require that the county reimburse an employee for "actual necessary expenditures for transportation." Since no challenge had been made to the adequacy of the reimbursement rate, the county's selection of employee transportation means was within its authority and discretion.

The union also disputed the county's action of unilaterally adopting the Local 660 fringe benefits schedule. Collective-bargaining contracts must be negotiated in good faith. After expiration of a contract, there can be no unilateral change of any term or condition of employment protected by statute.

The court found that a right to refuse to use a personal vehicle on county business was not protected by statute. Upon the expiration of the prior agreement, the county had the right to implement the provisions of its "last, best, and final offer." This offer included usage of personal vehicles. …