A powerful labor union and California’s hospitals are closing in on a deal that would allow hospitals to put off meeting seismic safety standards that will cost them tens of billions of dollars in exchange for significant boosts in minimum pay for certain health care workers.
The proposal, however, has set off alarm bells for at least seven unions representing hundreds of thousands of workers in health care and other industries. This growing coalition fired off a letter Tuesday to state leaders to strongly oppose a legislative deal that would extend seismic safety standards set to go into effect for California’s hospitals in 2030.
A spokeswoman for the California Hospital Association did not respond to The Sacramento Bee’s request for comment, but a document on the group’s website said: “CHA — at the direction of its board of trustees — and Service Employees International Union are together advancing a proposal to create long-term stability and predictability for hospitals and a path toward higher wages for California’s health care workforce.”
SEIU-UHW spokeswoman Renée Saldaña told The Bee that widespread support and momentum for a minimum wage for health care personnel is growing after four city councils in Southern California — Los Angeles, Downey, Monterey Park, and Long Beach — voted to raise the minimum wage for these workers and protect public health in their communities.
“SEIU-UHW is working to establish a minimum wage for healthcare workers across the state to ensure that healthcare jobs pay enough to retain experienced caregivers and attract new workers to the field,” she said.
The union created a political action website calling for fair wages for health care workers, in which it said it was advocating for statewide legislation on this issue.
“The new law will cover hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers in public and private acute hospitals, acute psychiatric hospitals, hospital-owned or affiliated entities, and dialysis clinics,” according to the website.
The opposition unions have been told that the SEIU-UHW deal with the hospital association would set minimum pay at $25 an hour, an especially large gain for janitors and other low-wage workers who work in non-union shops at companies that subcontract with hospitals, said one union representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, because he had not been authorized to share the information.
SEIU-UHW has waged an entrenched battle to organize workers at dialysis clinics into local unions and has backed three ballot initiatives that the industry has said would prove too costly if passed.
Teamsters, registered nurses, mental health clinicians and other workers say they reject the idea of sacrificing safety in their workplaces to get base pay for health care workers that exceeds the state’s current minimum wage.
“Our unions strongly oppose trading wages for safety,” the unions’ leaders wrote in a letter sent Wednesday. “It is a longstanding principle of the labor movement that unions support both higher minimum wages and strong safety standards for both workers and patients. We stand by that principle.”
Late proposal in California legislative year
In their letter, the labor leaders attacked the California Hospital Association, saying that the organization wanted to reverse decades of work aimed at keeping people safe inside buildings that are critical during natural disasters.
The association “is asking the governor and legislators to entirely exempt hundreds of hospital buildings in more than half the hospitals in California from the 2030 seismic standard designed to protect patients, the public and workers after earthquakes as well as a seven-year extension of the requirements for all hospitals.”
The California Dialysis Council also opposed the deal, objecting in a memo to state Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, and Senate President Pro Tempore Toni, D-San Diego.
Bills must pass both houses of the Legislature by Aug. 31. Otherwise, the organizations that want a deal would have to wait until next year to push a new bill.
“With only three weeks left in the legislative session a supposed deal to delay the hospital seismic safety retrofit requirement and to mandate a statewide minimum wage for select health care workers will be dropped in the lap of the legislature,” council leaders stated in the memo. “The dialysis community was NOT consulted and should NOT be a part of this deal.”
Five unions originally formed the coalition opposing the proposal. Two others joined them on Thursday. The seven are Local 3299 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the California Nurses Association, the California Teamsters Public Affairs Council, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, the Professional Engineers in California Government, the State Building & Construction Council and UNITE HERE!
Hospitals must function after earthquakes
Since 1994, the state of California has required hospital operators to ensure that, by 2020, most hospitals are not at risk of collapse in an earthquake and that, by 2030, that hospitals be capable of functioning after an earthquake.
“Unions have worked with hospitals in the past on specific, individual extensions based on the needs of the hospital,” the coalition of unions told legislators in their letter. “Over the years we have also met extensively with CHA on this issue but have not come to agreement.”
The unions warned legislators that exempting hospitals from complying with the 2030 seismic standard would mean that “as many as one out of four non-compliant hospital buildings would be unsafe to occupy after an earthquake.”
“The remaining buildings would not be required to have functional electricity, water, sewage, or even elevators,” they added. “How is it possible to care for hospital patients without electricity? Or water? Or elevators? Or other basic utilities and mechanical systems. That is why the 2030 standards exist.”