Labor tries to push California’s city-by-city minimum wage to $25

A class of healthcare facility support staff, including nursing assistants, security guards and janitors, have worked throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to keep doctors and nurses as well as patients and medical buildings safe and clean. It’s an uninterrupted line of work that some people consider a calling.

Tony Ramirez, 39, a critical care technician at Garfield Medical Center in Monterey Park, Calif., finds more fulfillment in helping people in need than editing technical documents for Disneyland. Before the epidemic, he would change and bathe patients and sometimes monitor their vital signs. After contracting Covid, he took on more responsibilities, giving CPR in emergencies or administering medicine, monitoring heart rhythms and conducting post-mortem work. “We started doing this,” Ramirez said, “due to the influx of Covid patients who are very sick and in very acute conditions.”

Through it all, his $19.40-an-hour salary hasn’t changed.

In Southern California, a labor union is trying to help private hospitals, psychiatric facilities and dialysis clinics by pushing for a $25 minimum wage. The Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, which represents about 100,000 health care workers in California, says an increase would help providers retain workers who might end up in comparable positions at Amazon or fast-food restaurants amid labor shortages. That would allow Ramirez to give up one of the three jobs he works for rent.

What began as a 10-city campaign by the union has won only two cities in Los Angeles County on the November ballot, reflecting costly political jockeying between labor and industry. And the $25 minimum wage isn’t the only campaign SEIU-UHW is running this cycle — it’s the third time the union has tried to pass dialysis industry reform.

A ballot issue committee called the California Association of Hospitals and Health Systems — funded by Northern California’s Kaiser Permanente, Adventist Health, Cedars-Sinai, Dignity Health, and other hospitals and health systems — opposes the $25 minimum wage because it increases private, but not public, costs. , hospitals and healthcare facilities. Opponents called the disparity an “unequal pay measure.” An analysis commissioned by the California Hospital Association estimated that the change would increase spending for private facilities by $392 million a year, a 6.9% increase in 10 cities.

“No one in hospitals and no one in health care is against a living wage,” said George Green, president and CEO of the Hospital Association of Southern California. “But we believe it should be a statewide conversation that’s measured and thoughtful.”

Earlier this year, city councils in Los Angeles, Downey, Monterey Park and Long Beach adopted similar $25 minimum wage ordinances for health workers, but were challenged by hospitals and health facilities, pushing the issue to the 2024 ballot. Meanwhile, the union dropped its effort in Anaheim and failed to collect enough signatures in Culver City, Linwood or Baldwin Park to get a minimum wage measure on the fall ballot. As a result, only voters in Inglewood and Duarte will cast their ballots — on Measure HC and Measure J, respectively — this November.

Spending to fight minimum wage proposal in Southern California has reached nearly $22 million. SEIU-UHW spent about $11 million in all 10 cities, according to state campaign finance filings. Hospitals and health facilities spent nearly $11 million to defeat minimum wage proposals.

Unions have long campaigned for minimum wage increases. In 2016, Labor was instrumental in successfully lobbying then-Gov. Jerry Brown would make California the first state to set a $15 minimum wage, a graduated measure that applies to all employers with 26 or more workers as of this year. About 40 local governments set their own minimum wage, the state minimum wage. The federal minimum wage remains at $7.25.

SEIU-UHW contemplated a statewide scope, as well as current piecemeal strategies targeting Los Angeles and surrounding cities. “At first we were looking city by city,” said Suzanne Jimenez, the union’s political director. “And then there was a conversation around doing it statewide but ultimately didn’t move forward.”

That’s partly because an agreement to set a statewide minimum wage at public and private hospitals fell apart at the end of the last legislative session, and victories like this are harder to pull off than before, said Bill Sokol, a labor lawyer who has worked with SEIU-UHW.

“It’s not about what we want to do, but about where we can win,” Sokol said. “The answer is in one city at a time.”

Union leaders said they targeted cities where internal polling showed support among residents. Jimenez said the proposal has majority support in Inglewood, but Duarte is too small to sample. The measures require a majority vote in each city to pass, and if they do, they will take effect 30 days after the results are certified.

If the approach proves successful in Los Angeles County, the union will consider taking the proposal to other parts of the state, including the Inland Empire and Sacramento, Jimenez said. This could eventually create momentum for statewide change.

If voters in Inglewood and Duarte pass a $25 minimum wage, the impact will be limited. Employees of state- and county-run medical facilities are not covered by city ordinances, so local measures do not apply. This means it excludes workers who do similar work in public hospitals, clinics and healthcare facilities.

In Inglewood, the measure would apply only to Sentinel Hospital Medical Center and several for-profit dialysis clinics. In Duarte, this will apply to City of Hope, a private cancer hospital.

Many labor economists agree that this workforce needs some improvement: they need higher wages and better working conditions. But it comes at a cost to the health system, said Joan Spaetz, director of the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California-San Francisco.

“Ultimately, who pays for this? Consumers do,” says Spaetz. “Perhaps you’re going to see a publicly traded company’s profitability go down a little bit, but the reality is that those companies have been pretty good at figuring out how to maintain their earnings and profitability.”

Still, the union says the $25 minimum wage would help members of the lowest-paid sectors of the health care workforce, who are disproportionately women, immigrants and people of color.

Andrew Kelly, assistant professor of public health at Cal State East Bay, said raising wages at one facility can have a cascade effect because nearby facilities must raise wages to compete.

Currently, a living wage for an adult in L.A. County is $21.89 an hour, or a little more than $45,500 a year, according to a tool from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to the same tool, occupations such as “health care assisting” typically pay the county about $33,000 annually.

Come Election Day, most Southern California health workers will have to watch from the sidelines.

In Monterey Park, where Ramirez works, the City Council approved a $25 minimum wage, but opponents nullified the vote, arguing that the council lacked a quorum at the time. The council put the question on the ballot in 2024, two years from now. Ramirez said new hires at his medical center start at $15.30 an hour doing the hospital’s dirtiest jobs, and five workers have left his department this year.

“It’s frustrating, I’m not going to lie,” Ramirez said. “These elected officials know what’s going on.”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, the editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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