Address poverty by raising standards for UC contractors

Ricardo Lara
Ricardo Lara

Everyone agrees that rising poverty and growing income inequality are bad for California and bad for America.

On what role our public institutions can play in addressing these problems, there are two sides – the side of doing something and the side of doing nothing.

Most people agree that we can and must do something.

From there, there are two more schools of thought – either government should mandate that wages rise, or that public institutions should lead by example and work within the marketplace to help raise standards.

An example of the former would be a state or federally mandated increase in the minimum wage. An example of the latter would be contracting policies for public institutions that require responsible bidders to meet higher wage standards.

The University of California is one such institution. It is our state’s third largest employer, with more than 200,000 “direct” employees. It also “indirectly” employs thousands of other workers through a growing army of private contractors: firms whose employees work at the same UC facilities and do the same jobs that career UC workers do. In fact, many even report to the same UC supervisors – performing tough, physical jobs like custodial services, food services, building maintenance and groundskeeping.

Here’s the problem: These workers are paid by outside firms, not UC. And because of that, they are paid as much as 53 percent less as career workers doing the same jobs, with few benefits, if any.

Ironically, these facts are consistent with past research from UC Berkeley’s Labor Center, which concluded that “contingent” workers are twice as likely to live in poverty and that many are reliant on as much as $1,743 per year in taxpayer-funded public assistance programs. A study from Pro Publica revealed that they are also 50 percent more likely to get injured on the job.

At UC, this translates to private contractors taking millions of dollars in public money, imposing additional hidden costs onto taxpayers, endangering workers and driving more and more of them into poverty. And because these private contracts – often initiated under the guise of “meeting a temporary need” – are routinely extended for years, it also means that there is nothing temporary about the problem.

UC Berkeley Labor Center research also has revealed that most of California’s temporary and subcontracted workers are people of color. In other words, this is not just a matter of economics, it is also a civil rights issue.

And it is high time that we recognized it for what it is.

There is no reason that any public institution should be subsidizing business models built on a foundation of poverty and second-class treatment of communities of color. But it is happening, ironically, at the same institution that has been sounding alarms about the problem.

Consider the case of Kin Wing Kwong, who has been working for a private contractor providing custodial services at UCSF Medical Center since 2012.

Kin works 40 hours per week, performs the same duties as UC career custodians and is even assigned a permanent workstation. In one of the most expensive cities in America, Kin has been paid as little as $10.74 per hour, or $6.27 per hour less than a career UC custodian with the same duties and experience. Despite working at a world-class, taxpayer-supported medical facility, Kin receives no employer-sponsored health care benefits.

Kin has had to delay getting his 6-month-old baby boy a series of vaccinations because he could not afford them.

It is for the thousands of UC subcontractors like Kin that earlier this spring I authored Senate Bill 376 – legislation that would require contractors qualifying as “lowest responsible bidders” with the University of California to pay their workers the same wages as career UC employees performing the same work.

On poverty, and especially poverty created by private firms profiting from business with California’s public institutions – doing nothing is simply not an option.

With SB 376 – equal pay for equal work for subcontractors at UC – we have a great opportunity to finally do something about it.

State Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.