Hundreds of county workers shut down streets in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, rallying for higher wages and health care contributions as their union contracts are set to expire.

Service Employees International Union Local 721 represents more than 60,000 registered nurses, social workers, parks and recreation staffers, janitors, clerical staff and others whose labor contracts expire Sunday.

The union says county jobs have offered a path to the middle-class and set a standard for public sector jobs, but the region’s “skyrocketing” cost of living is hitting members hard.

More than 100 of those employees filed into a meeting of the Board of Supervisors, while hundreds more watched on a big screen outside. SEIU Local 721 Vice President Linda Dent estimated the crowd totaled 3,000 workers.

Dent, who chairs the bargaining team, said they represent “workers who are the backbone of L.A. County … the safety net” and “struggle to make it from paycheck to paycheck.”

Many of those employees have private sector opportunities, but stay with the county because of historically good health care benefits, “and now you’re trying to take them away,” Dent said. “Not on our watch.”

Other labor leaders reminded the board of the hard and often stressful jobs county workers do.

“Most of the good work we do will never make the headlines,” said Sharonda Wade, a social worker and member of the SEIU Local 721 executive board.

Wade talked about working with clients like a girl who was gang-raped and a mother whose husband attacked her with a hatchet, telling the board, “They have no voice, we are their voice.”

The union told its members last month that managers were offering a 7 percent increase over three years and seeking a three-year freeze on some health care benefits.

A refusal to raise contributions to health care premiums in a period of rising costs would be amount to a pay cut, said Carlos Rosales, who works for the Department of Beaches and Harbors and was one of five representatives speaking on behalf of union members.

“The cut … would be a nightmare,” Rosales said, reminding the board that workers went on strike in 1991 to win full coverage health care. “It matters that much.”

In a statement emailed to City News Service, Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai declined to comment on specifics, but said management and labor interests were aligned.

“Los Angeles County’s workforce is its most important asset. We respect and admire our employees’ commitment to public service,” Hamai said. “Since we are actively involved in labor negotiations we cannot comment on any proposals, but at the end of the day we all want the same thing: to provide the most effective and caring service possible to the county’s more than 10 million residents.”

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who chairs the county board, accommodated the union by allowing its representatives to speak out of turn so that the hundreds of workers — who she said turned out on their own time — could get back to work.

“We appreciate our workers and I just want you to know we do hear you,” Kuehl said.

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