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Push to block L.A.'s healthcare wage hike has been misleading, union alleges

A man speaking into a bullhorn stands in front of a banner reading "Fair wages for healthcare workers"
Stan Lyles, vice president of the union representing many L.A. healthcare workers, speaks at a rally last month outside the offices of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Hospitals and other health facilities have been trying to block a Los Angeles ordinance that would hike the minimum wage for thousands of workers at private hospitals and dialysis clinics to $25 an hour.

If they get the nearly 41,000 signatures needed for a referendum before an upcoming deadline, the wage hike could be put on hold until an election where voters would decide its fate.

But representatives of SEIU-UHW, the healthcare workers union that pushed for the wage increase, allege that signature gatherers for the referendum have been misleading Angelenos, telling them that their signatures are needed “to pay workers more” and “to raise the healthcare workers’ wages,” according to incident reports gathered by the union.

At a Vons grocery store in Mission Hills, “the lady was saying ‘sign this to pay workers more,’” one of the reports compiled by SEIU-UHW stated. Another report said that at a Target on the Westside, another signature gatherer had a sign reading “Support $25/HR. for Healthcare Workers in L.A.”

SEIU-UHW sent those and dozens of other complaints about alleged violations of election codes, including making inaccurate statements about the petition and not allowing signers to read it, to the L.A. County district attorney’s office and to the Los Angeles city clerk’s office this week. Under California law, it is illegal for anyone circulating a petition to intentionally make false statements about what it would do.

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Local hospitals are suing Los Angeles over its measure to bolster the minimum wage to $25 an hour. They argue it unfairly covers only some facilities.

Opponents of the wage measure contended that their petition and messaging — which includes ads and door-to-door outreach — has been clear about its purpose. The No on the Los Angeles Unequal Pay Measure Campaign, a group sponsored by the California Assn. of Hospitals and Health Systems, said in a statement that “we have been consistent and open about our reasons for the referendum — the ordinance is bad policy that is inequitable and unfair for workers, and we want to give the voters the right to decide.”

“The petition language itself that voters are signing, as well [as] our materials and advertising have been clear — we’re asking voters to sign the petition to put this unequal and flawed policy to the ballot,” the referendum campaign said in its statement.

The group seeking to stop the wage increase also provided copies of signs that it said had been given to signature gatherers, including slogans such as “Equal Pay for All — Not Just 10% of Our Health Care Workers.” The hospital coalition argues that the ordinance unfairly singles out some health facilities and not others for wage increases.

In June, the Los Angeles City Council voted to require a $25 minimum wage for a range of workers at privately owned hospitals, including nursing assistants, housekeepers, clerical workers, guards, janitors and other employees who are not supervisors or managers.

It’s set to take effect Aug. 13, but could be put on hold if the referendum effort gathers enough signatures. The deadline to turn in those signatures is 5 p.m. Aug. 12, according to the city clerk’s office. The ordinance could also be temporarily put on hold while the city verifies whether the referendum campaign met the signature requirement.

If opponents of the wage measure do obtain the required signatures, the City Council must either repeal the ordinance or put it on the ballot for voters to decide.

The measure backed by SEIU-UHW also covered privately owned dialysis clinics, as well as clinics and nursing facilities that are part of private hospitals. SEIU-UHW argued that the measure was needed to retain workers who had struggled throughout the pandemic.

“I worked 16 hours a shift just to make ends meet,” Yolanda Ramirez, a Cedars-Sinai Medical Center food service worker, said at a July rally outside the offices of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California.

Ramirez said that the pinch of inflation was forcing her to buy fewer groceries.

“I cut down in so many ways so I could pay bills. A $25 minimum wage would change so much for me, for my family,” she said. “Now these rich CEOs want to take that away from us.”

Since the hospital groups have launched their campaign against the wage measure, the union has released ads, sent out mailers and hired banner-towing airplanes to fly around Los Angeles urging people not to sign their petitions.

The union is also sending its members and staff to locations where signature gatherers are working for the referendum petition “to let the public know they have an option to withdraw their signatures,” SEIU-UHW spokesperson Renée Saldaña said.

Saldaña said the union has turned in dozens of withdrawal forms from L.A. residents to the city clerk.

Koreatown resident Michael Burns, 30, said that when he signed the referendum petition outside a store, he believed that it would ensure that voters would have a chance to approve a wage increase that healthcare workers would otherwise not receive.

“It sounded like it was something to support them,” Burns said, “even though the details were unclear.”

When he later spoke with healthcare workers outside a grocery store and learned that the petition could halt their pending wage increase, “I felt pure disgust.”

Burns, a private tutor who said he is not an SEIU-UHW member or otherwise affiliated with the union, said he had filled out a withdrawal form.

Hospital groups argue that the measure would jeopardize facilities that rely heavily on government revenue, hurting access to health services for vulnerable people. One of the hospitals that has sued the city over the measure is Barlow Respiratory Hospital, which said in the lawsuit that it “may very well cease to exist” if required to hike wages to $25 an hour.

The lawsuit filed by hospital groups also contends that the L.A. measure improperly singled out only some health facilities for wage increases.

“It excludes workers at 90% of healthcare facilities in the city of Los Angeles for no apparent reason,” Hospital Assn. of Southern California President and Chief Executive George W. Greene said in a statement.

The L.A. measure does not cover public hospitals and a range of clinics that are not affiliated with privately owned hospitals, among other health facilities. Union officials have argued that the city could not legally set wages for county and state employees; they are pursuing a state bill to increase wages to at least $25 an hour for workers at federally qualified health centers.

SEIU-UHW has also been pursuing $25 minimum wage measures for workers at privately owned hospitals in other cities in Los Angeles County.

Long Beach council members recently moved to back such a measure, following in the footsteps of the cities of L.A., Downey and Monterey Park. In Duarte and Inglewood, wage measures are headed to the ballot for voters to decide.


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