When we hear about exploited workers, we often think of people working in other countries for pennies a day, in sweatshop conditions.
Closer to home, we often think of private companies such as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart racing to shift as many of their labor costs onto the backs of taxpayers as possible – forcing full-time employees to work three jobs and rely on government assistance just to get by, while blocking an increase to the federal minimum wage in Congress.
One place where we would never expect to see such deplorable employer conduct is in the public sector – especially at a world-class institution like the University of California.
But it is happening. Over the past several years, many UC facilities have ramped up their use of outside contractors to perform work normally done by career UC employees.
The work they do is the most physically demanding at UC, results in the most injuries and receives the lowest pay. It often involves dealing with hazardous chemicals, biological waste and other contaminants that directly impact the cleanliness and safety of the facilities that millions of UC patients and students entrust with their lives each year.
Only the UC administration either doesn’t see it that way, or doesn’t care. Here’s why it should.
First, it makes financial sense. At UC Davis Medical Center and UC San Francisco, UC has squandered nearly $4 million on just two outside contracts for custodial work since 2011. The owners of the two contractors (A&E at UC Davis and Impec Group at UCSF) pay nearly 100 employees – who are predominantly young people of color – as little as $10.74 to $15 an hour with no benefits and no voice on the job.
Had the UC system simply brought these subcontracted employees in-house and provided them with the same living wages and secure benefits as other UC workers, it would have saved almost $1 million. That’s just from two contracts; there are dozens more system-wide.
Second, many UC medical facilities are understaffed, leading to safety deficiencies that have led to millions of dollars in government fines and contributed to a 20 percent spike in injury rates among UC service workers since 2009.
That’s because when custodial workers retire or leave UC, they are often not replaced. At UC Davis Medical Center, the Environmental Services Department – which keeps the hospital safe and clean for patients – is short as many as 82 people. UCSF is short as many as 50. That means stuff that needs to be cleaned isn’t being cleaned as well as it should. It also means that workers left behind have two or three times their normal duties, leading to more injuries and lower quality workmanship.
Bringing on staff the nearly 100 subcontracted custodial workers at UCSF and UC Davis would be a huge step toward addressing this growing safety problem. This is especially urgent in light of the state’s decision last week to designate five UC hospitals as priority facilities to treat any Ebola patients.
Safety and monetary concerns aside, most Californians agree that public institutions such as UC should set standards when it comes to treatment of workers – not try to beat McDonald’s and Wal-Mart in a morally bankrupt race to the bottom.
Many of AFSCME Local 3299’s current members were once contract workers struggling to support their families on minimum wage with no benefits. There are no words to express how the chance to build a career at UC has changed their lives.
That’s what UC is supposed to be about – allowing students, patients and their staff the chance to build better lives. UC’s exploitation of contract workers is nothing short of hypocrisy.
Going forward, UC can save money and offer their subcontracted workers a chance to build a better life. Or UC can continue paying outside contractors more for less, and hope that facilities will magically clean themselves.
If UC administrators feel any sense of obligation to the safety of those in their care, or the legacy of the institutions they serve, they will choose the former. And we should all demand nothing less.
Kathryn Lybarger is president of AFSCME Local 3299, the largest union at the University of California, representing more than 22,000 workers at campuses, medical centers, research laboratories and other facilities.