Hospital-wage measures on the ballot in Duarte, Inglewood

Voters in the cities of Duarte and Inglewood will decide next month whether to raise the minimum wage to $25 an hour for a number of workers in privately owned hospitals and dialysis clinics.

The wage measures were championed by the healthcare workers’ union SEIU-UHW, which is pushing for a minimum of $25 an hour at healthcare facilities in many Los Angeles County cities. SEIU-UHW leaders have argued that the wage increases are crucial to retaining workers who have felt devalued during the pandemic.

“If the hospital gave me more money, I wouldn’t go,” said Victor, an emergency room technician at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, who asked to be used by his first name only out of fear of employer retaliation. “I like this hospital. I know this hospital like the back of my hand.”

Inglewood Hospital pays him $21.50 an hour, plus extra pay for night shifts, he said. To make ends meet, he said he juggled two jobs, sometimes sleeping in his car and dozing off at t-ball games when his son wasn’t at bat. When another $25-an-hour job became available, he decided to hand in his resignation, he said.

“I’d rather help this community,” Victor said. “But I have to take care of myself and my family.”

Union officials hope local action could help pave the way for a national minimum wage for workers in such facilities. An attempted nationwide deal between SEIU-UHW and California Hospital Assn. collapsed in August amid concerns from other unions who said the agreement traded higher wages for undermining earthquake standards in hospitals.

Passing the measures at Duarte and Inglewood would mean “an immediate life change for many of these workers,” allowing them to hold no more than one job and potentially continue their education, SEIU-UHW spokeswoman Renée Saldaña said. It would “keep healthcare workers in their jobs, in these communities, in these facilities to improve patient care.”

SEIU-UHW faces a coalition of hospitals and other opponents who have tried to thwart their efforts. Pay increases are now on hold in Los Angeles and Downey, where local officials voted to enact them after hospital groups collected enough signatures to put the pay rises to a vote instead.

Another referendum aimed at a wage increase in Long Beach was still collecting signatures in early October, the city clerk’s office said.

If voters approve wage measures in Duarte or Inglewood next month, they would be the first to take effect in LA County, union officials said.

Wages for health professionals have been “relatively low” in recent years, “despite their increased demands and stressors in the work environment,” said Christopher M. Whaley, health economist at Rand Corp. and Professor at Rand Pardee Graduate School. As a result, “there was an urge to financially acknowledge a lot of the burdens they’ve had during the pandemic.”

The wages are measured in Inglewood for voting and Duarte cover a range of staff including security guards, clerks, nursing assistants, aides, housekeepers, groundskeepers and others working in privately run hospitals, psychiatric institutions, dialysis centers and clinics belonging to private hospitals.

In Duarte, this includes the staff at the cancer treatment center City of Hope; In Inglewood, it would cover staff at Centinela Hospital Medical Center, as well as seven dialysis clinics, according to SEIU-UHW. (City of Hope declined to comment on the measures, while Centinela Hospital referred questions to a campaign representative, who opposed them.) The two measures would involve nearly 700 SEIU-UHW members, plus an unknown number of Affect workers who are not part of the union, Saldaña said.

Whaley said doctors and many other hospital workers are well above the union’s required minimum wage of $25 an hour, so the wage increases would mostly hit lower-income workers, including hospital support staff. Raising wages “could be a tool to increase the ability to attract and retain workers, which is difficult to achieve in this environment,” he said.

But it could also increase operating costs — and the money “has to come from somewhere,” which could lead to a push to raise prices or reduce services, Whaley said. The voting measures say private hospitals and other insured employers cannot pay for the wage increases by cutting vacation or other benefits, reducing hours, or laying off insured employees.

Hospital groups have argued that the wage increases are arbitrary and unfair because they single out only some healthcare facilities. In Duarte and Inglewood, the majority of healthcare facilities are not covered by the measure, according to California Hospital Assn.

Jeannee Parker Martin, president and CEO of LeadingAge California, whose group represents facilities that house and care for older adults, said neither of its members in Duarte and Inglewood will be required to increase wages under the two measures, but they would “a whole range of unintended consequences”, including “exacerbating the already critical staff shortages”.

Nursing homes and other senior facilities have to compete for the same workers, who would make at least $25 an hour in private hospitals but struggle to pay higher wages while relying on government reimbursements, she said.

“It’s not that we don’t all want higher wages,” said Martin, whose group is part of the coalition against the wage measures. “It is that the reimbursement system has not kept up.” If wage measures are passed, “we’re not really solving a problem by hiring more staff. We are moving staff to hospital-based facilities.”

Responding to questions about the limited scope of the wage measures, union officials said they would not include public hospitals because cities cannot set wages for county or state employees. SEIU-UHW had pursued a separate measure to raise wages at community clinics to $25 an hour — a state bill that failed to make it through the legislature this year.

Opponents have also warned that pay rises could leave some hospitals in financial trouble. In Los Angeles, Barlow Respiratory Hospital was among a group of facilities suing a city measure to raise wages to at least $25 an hour, arguing that it “could very well cease to exist” if the wage increases there would be required.

Saldaña said hospital companies in general could afford to invest more in workers, but also stressed that the Duarte and Inglewood electoral measures include a provision that allows employers to seek a one-year waiver of wage requirements in court if they being able to demonstrate that an increase in wages would raise serious doubts about their ability to act.

Adena Tessler, regional vice president for LA County at the Hospital Assn. from Southern California, argued that “the language is incredibly vague,” with “little guiding language in the initiative about what the process would entail.”

By early October, hospitals and health systems that resisted Inglewood and Duarte’s actions had reported contributing more than $3 million to Inglewood and Duarte’s campaigns, while SEIU-UHW contributed around $1.5 million contributed in support of the two measures. Voters will comment on Duarte and Inglewood’s actions on November 8. Hospital-wage measures on the ballot in Duarte, Inglewood

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