Health & Medicine

Gloves come off as employees launch strike at UC Davis and other medical centers

The University of California and its largest employee union, AFSCME Local 3299, both came out throwing punches Tuesday as the university’s lowest-paid workers hit the picket line for the second time in six months to push for better wage increases and job security.

Roughly 500 employees marched at Sacramento’s UC Davis Medical Center and chanted union slogans such as “What do we want? Contracts! When do we want them? Now!” in a picket line that stretched down the block.

Other protests unfolded at UC Irvine, UCLA, UC San Diego and UC San Francisco medical centers in a strike that will last from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Thursday.

As the strike proceeds, Sacramento motorists and UCD patients should expect occasional traffic delays along Stockton Boulevard between V Street and Second Avenue.

Monica De Leon, the vice president of AFSCME Local 3299’s patient-care technical unit, said in a news release that the current UC leaders are “destroying what were once career pathways to the middle-class for our state’s diverse population.”

Jasmine Tobin, a certified occupational therapy assistant at UCD Medical Center, said she’s taking all three days off to strike because she’s afraid she’ll lose her job when UC Davis opens up its $60 million rehabilitation hospital at its planned Aggie Square campus near Broadway and Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento.

“It’s not going to be UC Davis employees,” she said of the new hospital. “We were told that the new development is going to be a different company, so if we want to stay at the UC Davis Rehab, we would have to apply to that company.

“There’s the potential I won’t be hired. ... It’s our whole department: physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, social work, neuropsychology, the rehab nurses.”

UCD Medical Center executive Toby Marsh said that if employees in the rehabilitation department do not want to apply for positions with the company managing the new rehab hospital, they can request assignments for positions in other departments at the medical center.

“We are not laying them off,” said Marsh, the chief nursing and patient care services officer at UCD Medical Center. “And we want to find them other positions within the hospital. We are a hospital, and we are going to need therapists. We have therapists in a variety of different settings.”

Asked how salaries would compare at the new rehabilitation, Marsh said he did not know but that any health care employer in the Sacramento region would have to offer competitive salaries to attract the best talent.

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UC spokeswoman Claire Doan, in a statement released Tuesday, described AFSCME 3299’s strike strategy as combative, harmful and ineffective. Doan’s comments were a departure for university leaders, who until now have declined to go toe-to-toe with the union in the media.

“Union leaders certainly have the right to express — even scream — their opinions, but the way to a deal is at the negotiating table, not on the picket lines,” Doan said. “For a year AFSCME leaders have refused to budge on their unreasonable demand of a 36 percent raise over four years for patient-care workers. That is nearly triple what other university employees have received and clearly unrealistic for a taxpayer-funded institution like UC.”

At UCD Medical Center, officials said that 69 percent of the union workers scheduled to work crossed the picket line to work. Marsh said that, while the scene outside the hospital entrance was unusually raucous, the work day proceeded much the same as usual inside the hospital.

“Our staff are here providing care,” he said. “Our staff is one of the reasons why we’re nationally ranked. It’s one of the reasons why we’re a Level I adult and pediatric trauma center. Their commitment to our patients and to our community is second to none.”

AFSCME negotiators are seeking pay raises totaling 8 percent annually over a four-year contract for 15,000 employees such as respiratory therapists, medical transcribers and phlebotomists in its patient-care unit and for 9,000 members of its service unit, which includes building food service workers, security guards and custodians.

The university has offered 3 percent annual wage increases, a proposal that registered nurses in the California Nurses Association approved late last month. Even as AFSCME chides the UC over its proposed salary increases, Doan said, union leadership has quietly moved to take a larger portion of their members’ paychecks, increasing the monthly dues cap in January to $120 from $78.

UC Davis officials began making a public case for their proposed pay raises, using detailed statements on how its average annual salaries compare with market wages. On average, they said, phlebotomists make 7 percent above the market, food service workers, 17 percent over market; and senior custodians, 5 percent above market.

UCD also provided examples of the average annual salaries it pays: $101,951 for respiratory therapists, $56,703 for phlebotomists, $39,925 for senior custodians and $39,219 for food service workers.

AFSCME leadership has said its membership has shared the least in the financial success of the campuses and medical centers they serve. They continued to decry the UC’s outsourcing of jobs, saying the trend has worsened income, racial, and gender inequality in its medical centers and campuses. They point to an August 2017 report from the California State Auditor that found the University of California, Davis, and other UC campuses have used outsourcing to minimize hiring new employees.

The auditor found that many contractors also paid far below the university minimum wage and did not offer comparable benefits. Through outsourcing, AFSCME leaders said, the university is basically helping to lower the prevailing market wages used as a barometer for how well AFSCME members and other employees are paid.

“We’ve bargained in good faith for over a year to address outsourcing at UC because it creates unequal and insecure circumstances that workers must struggle with every day,” said AFSCME 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger. “Instead of joining us in an effort to arrest these alarming trends, UC has insisted on deepening them — leaving workers no option but to strike.”

Tobin, who’s worked at UCD hospital for six years, said that, even if she gets a position with the new company, she doesn’t know that she will have union representation or the same wages and benefits.

Kristina Torres, a transplant financial coordinator at UCD Medical Center, said she feels as though the UC is trying to strip away protections that workers won when they voted in the union.

A single mother with two sons in college, Torres said that her UCD wages doubled after union representation began and that the increased wages allowed her to buy a home near Sacramento State and provide stability for her children. She said she’s worried the outsourcing won’t end with this one department.

Doan has said that the UC’s outsourcing provides flexibility to meet specific needs that would be inefficient, impractical or infeasible to address with work by permanent employees and that the university had agreed, in its contract with AFSCME, that it would not enter such contracts solely to save money on employee wages and benefits. The university cannot use a subcontracting decision to lay off AFSCME-represented employees.

“Over the past five years at UC systemwide, the number of AFSCME patient-care employees has increased by 18.9 percent — 2,450 workers — and the number of AFSCME service employees has increased by 14.4 percent — 1,206 workers,” Doan said. “Meanwhile, spending on campus service contracts has stayed relatively flat. ”

AFSCME officials, however, pointed to data on outsourcing at UC Davis showing that it had sharply increased spending on service contracts for cleaning and custodial work, labor, transportation and patient-care technical work since October 2015.

It is AFSCME’s patient-care technical employees who called the strike for Tuesday through Thursday. Its service employee unit, which voted to strike last May, is joining them in a solidarity strike. So are the roughly 15,000 members of UPTE-CWA 9119.

UPTE-CWA, like AFSCME 3299, has been bargaining with the University of California for more than a year and has reached a stalemate in negotiations. UPTE-CWA members were offered annual raises of 2 percent a year, terms they rejected as “garbage.” They also say the university treats their members as second-class citizens, paying them overtime for three fewer holidays than registered nurses receive.

Union leaders said they are as committed as hospital executives to ensuring that patients be allowed get to their appointments during the strike and that they will receive the same high-quality care they have come to expect from the University of California. Marsh stressed that UC leaders want to negotiate a contract as much as union leaders do.

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