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‘We can’t afford healthcare’: US hospital workers fight for higher wages

Michael Sainato

Hospital and healthcare workers across the US are launching union drives and organizing protests in order to win higher wages and better working conditions, saying their industry exploits them and leaves them often unable to afford healthcare, despite working in the sector.

In Chicago, the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas (SEIU) is launching a campaign to organize hospital workers to ensure a $15 minimum wage extends to workers outside the city limits of Chicago, where the promise of such a rise has already been won.

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According to the SEIU, there are about 50,000 low-wage hospital workers throughout the Chicago metro area and about 10,000 are currently represented by the union.

LeChrisha Pearson, a single mother and certified nursing assistant for eight years at Chicago’s Mount Sinai hospital, was one of about 400 workers at the hospital who organized a union in June 2019, and threatened to strike in November 2019 before winning a contract that would raise wages for all workers to $15 an hour.

She works two to three jobs, including as a delivery driver for Uber Eats, to make ends meet while working full-time at the hospital.

“We’re trying to make sure every hospital worker across the city has a voice when it comes to making decisions in the workplace,” added Pearson. “It’s just starting, but it’s a campaign that needs to expand throughout the healthcare system as a whole.”

As part of the campaign, four unionized hospitals in the Chicago area will be fighting for new union contracts to address issues rampant throughout the hospital industry, including low pay, poor working conditions, unaffordable healthcare and inequities in hospital funding.

“We work in the healthcare field, but we can’t afford the healthcare ourselves. It’s ridiculous. When we look at the staffing issues, they can work us, knowing we’re short-staffed, but they don’t care,” said Kimberly Smith, a patient care technician at Northwestern Memorial hospital, and a union chief steward.

We work in the healthcare field, but we can’t afford the healthcare ourselves. It's ridiculous

Kimberly Smith

She has recently received threats of a lawsuit due to an inability to pay for medical debt she accrued after an emergency room visit to the hospital where she has worked at for 16 years.

Northwestern did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

One of the union’s organizing targets are hospital workers at Aurora Healthcare, who are not yet unionized.

Bill Gentry has worked as an EMT and CNA for 23 years at Advocate Aurora Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois. Despite working at the hospital for over two decades and holding two certifications, he makes just $18 an hour with unaffordable health insurance, no retirement pension, and is forced to do work outside of his job scope.

“We’re answering phones and doing direct patient care as well. Our pay doesn’t reflect we do secretary work,” said Gentry. “We’re overworked and underpaid. You would think because we take care of people, our benefits would reflect that, but I’m currently on my wife’s insurance because I can’t afford the health insurance offered by the hospital.”

A spokesperson for Advocate Aurora Health did not address the additional job duties Gentry described, but cited in an email the company is raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021.

“While we respect individuals’ rights to consider union membership, we honor and want to maintain the direct relationship we have with our team members, allowing us to create the best environment for them to pursue their passion and help us deliver safe, quality patient care,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile in Las Vegas, hospital workers are fighting against proposed cuts in their latest union contract with Valley Hospital Medical Center, owned by UHS, one of the largest hospital chains in the US.

Pat Porchia worked as an environmental services attendant at Valley Hospital Medical Center for 23 years before she was fired along with two other union stewards in November 2019.

“They fired three of us on the union committee in one week,” Porchia said. “I knew they were getting ready to fire me. They would trail us everyday, sometimes three managers would check our stations, turn over everything to find something to write me up that day, they would come back the next week, do the same thing.”

According to the Culinary Union Local 226, which represents workers at Valley Hospital Medical Center, the hospital is proposing to cut wages by $3 an hour, eliminate a guaranteed 40-hour work week and eliminate health and pension benefits. Unfair labor practice charges for the firings filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) are currently under review.

A spokesperson for the Valley Health System declined to comment on Porchia’s termination or union contract negotiations.

In Pennsylvania workers have been trying to organize a union at Pittsburgh’s largest employer, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), for several years.

Alexandria Cutler, a food service attendant at UPMC Presbyterian and Western Psychiatric hospital for two years who makes $14.42 an hour, is trying to organize a union for herself and colleagues.

In early 2018, Cutler suffered a back injury on the job and is still struggling with about $2,000 in medical debt from UPMC due an emergency room visit. She criticized the slow rollout of UPMC’s plan to increase its minimum hourly wage to $15 an hour by 2021.

“Everything, bills and living costs, is going to go up by the time UPMC decides to pay $15 an hour,” said Cutler. “They say they take pride in giving dignity and respect to people, but they don’t give that to employees.”

Cutler explained she has been intimidated by managers for supporting unionization and cited she was forced to remove a union pin from her uniform.

UPMC has faced several unfair labor practice charges with the NLRBa with mixed results. In August 2018, the board ruled against UPMC, ordering several UPMC hospitals to reinstate three illegally fired employees and stop intimidation, threats and surveillance of workers.

A spokesperson for UPMC denied claims of union busting by its management. “We continue to believe that our employees have better experiences when they work directly with their management teams,” the spokesperson said in an email.