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Why an unlikely pair are pushing to weaken hospital earthquake protections

People hold a banner at a rally next to a man with a megaphone
Members of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West attend a July 21 rally supporting a $25-an-hour minimum wage.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

California hospitals have long sought to weaken legally required — and costly — seismic upgrades meant to ensure their doors can remain open to patients after a major earthquake.

Now, the hospitals have a new and unexpected ally — an influential union that is supporting the watered-down seismic standards in a deal giving the employees it represents a wage bump.

The last-minute alliance has infuriated other unions, which accused the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West of making a backroom deal that skirts the legislative process and puts patients, healthcare workers and communities at risk. It’s still unclear whether a lawmaker will author a bill containing the proposal, which is being pushed in the waning days of the legislative session that ends Aug. 31.

The California Hospital Assn., which advocates for hospitals, did not return calls or emails seeking comment.

SEIU-UHW lauded its own efforts to increase the minimum wage for pandemic-fatigued healthcare workers but did not answer questions about its alliance with the hospital group. Before appearing as allies this week, the two groups had been been locked in a fierce fight over wage measures in several Los Angeles County cities.

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“You are gambling with people’s lives with this agreement,” said Chuck Idelson, a spokesperson for the California Nurses Assn. “Our commitment is to public safety and not trading that for a cash deal that primarily benefits one organization.”

Existing law requires that by 2030, every hospital is capable of operating after the Big One. Hospitals estimate that those upgrades will cost $100 billion, a tab they say is likely to result in closures across the state.

Last year in private negotiations at the state Capitol, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office supported the hospital association’s proposal to delay seismic upgrades, according to multiple sources involved in the discussions who were not authorized to speak at the time. On Thursday, Newsom’s office declined to comment on the latest proposal.

The attempt last year to strike a deal came at the same time as a 6.0-magnitude earthquake in Northern California. After Democratic legislative leaders made it clear that any change in seismic standards needed the support of labor unions, the proposal fizzled.

This week, labor groups attacked both the hospital association’s latest attempt to overhaul seismic standards and the union lending its name to the efforts.

“The State Building Trades represent nearly half a million families statewide. We owe it to them, and all Californians, to ensure that the healthcare workers and hospitals that care for them are safe,” said Erin Lehane, legislative director for the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Nearly all hospital buildings in the state met seismic standards under a 1994 law meant to ensure that none collapsed during a major earthquake. The law was passed after that year’s Northridge earthquake, which caused serious damage to hospitals.

Under the same law, a higher standard — that hospitals not only remain standing but be able to operate after a major earthquake — had to be met by 2030.

Nearly three decades later, almost two-thirds of California hospitals have yet to meet the 2030 requirements, according to the hospital association.

“That’s negligent on their part,” said Cathy Kennedy, a registered nurse and president of the California Nurses Assn. “This was brought to their attention many, many years ago. They need to prioritize and put the funding into the infrastructure. They can do it.”

In a draft of the new proposal obtained by The Times, the California Hospital Assn. is seeking a seven-year delay to the 2030 standards. In addition, the proposal would limit the standards to hospital buildings that provide emergency services and allow rural hospitals that demonstrate financial hardship to obtain additional waivers from the extended timeline.

Under the same proposal, the minimum wage for healthcare workers would be raised to between $19 and $24 an hour beginning Jan. 1, with the higher pay going to workers in counties designated as urban or semi-urban. Pay would increase by $1 an hour in 2024, bringing the hourly minimum wage for some workers to $25.

Healthcare workers at dialysis clinics would also qualify for the increases. SEIU-UHW has been in a longstanding battle with the deep-pocketed dialysis industry, with the union pushing oversight measures that have been rejected at the ballot box. The union has another dialysis measure, Proposition 29, on the November ballot.

“Further delaying seismic retrofitting requirements for hospitals is analogous to not managing our forests and then watching in horror when Mother Nature strikes — and we’ve unfortunately seen how that has played out over the last several years,” said Jaycob Bytel, a spokesperson for the California Dialysis Council.

SEIU-UHW has championed minimum-wage measures in Los Angeles, Long Beach and eight other cities in L.A. County that would boost pay to $25 an hour. Those measures, which the hospital association is fighting, apply to workers at privately owned hospitals and dialysis clinics, as well as other health facilities tied to private hospitals.

In June, Los Angeles officials approved the wage hike, saying it was needed to retain workers who felt devalued after enduring the COVID-19 pandemic. The L.A. measure covers a range of employees, including janitors, nursing assistants, security guards and clerical workers.

Hospital groups responded by launching a campaign to block the wage requirement, gathering signatures to force the City Council to either repeal it or put it before voters. The No on the Los Angeles Unequal Pay Measure Campaign, a group funded by the California Hospital Assn., said this month that it had turned in more than 88,000 signatures in support of the referendum effort.

L.A. city officials have put the wage ordinance on hold while they check whether opponents have garnered the 40,717 valid signatures that are required.

Hospitals are fighting similar measures in other L.A. County cities, including in Downey, where they have also turned in signatures seeking a referendum. Local hospitals and their associations, including the California Hospital Assn., have sued the city of L.A. over the wage ordinance, arguing that it arbitrarily awards higher wages depending on where a person works. They also argued the costs of the wage hike could jeopardize some hospitals financially.

Times staff writers Taryn Luna and Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.


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