Wage hike for L.A. private hospital workers on hold; voters likely to decide its fate

Stan Lyles, vice president of the SEIU-UHW union representing healthcare workers, speaks at a July rally outside the offices of Hospital Assn. of Southern California in downtown Los Angeles.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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Hospital groups and other opponents of a Los Angeles city measure that boosts the minimum wage for thousands of workers at privately owned health facilities have succeeded in gathering enough signatures to force the City Council to either repeal it or put the issue on the ballot, L.A. city officials have concluded.

Los Angeles leaders voted earlier this year to hike the minimum wage to $25 an hour for certain workers at privately owned hospitals, dialysis clinics and a range of other health facilities affiliated with private hospitals, backing an effort championed by the healthcare workers union SEIU-UHW. Labor leaders and city officials argued it would help hospitals retain workers who have felt devalued during the pandemic.

Hospital groups argued that the wage measure would wreak havoc on the industry and ultimately hurt patients.

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They launched a campaign to halt the ballot measure and put it up for a vote through a referendum; hospital groups also sued the city over the wage ordinance, arguing that it was arbitrary and unfair because only some kinds of facilities were singled out for higher wages.

To put the wage measure on the ballot, the hospital coalition needed to gather 40,717 valid signatures from registered voters in the city. The No on the Los Angeles Unequal Pay Measure Campaign, a group sponsored by the California Assn. of Hospitals and Health Systems, said it had turned in more than 88,000 signatures to the L.A. city clerk.

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The L.A. city clerk confirmed Wednesday that the referendum effort had succeeded in meeting city requirements, based on an initial count and a random sampling of signatures to verify their validity.

Under city rules, the clerk will provide a “certification of sufficiency” to the City Council, which then has 20 days to repeal the ordinance, call a special election for voters to decide its fate, or submit it to be voted on at a regularly scheduled city election. If the council opts for an election, the L.A. ordinance will remain on hold until voters decide its fate.

Opponents of the wage measure welcomed the news, saying that voters would likely weigh in in 2024.

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“Los Angeles voters have made it clear that they want the right to vote on the unfair and unequal pay ordinance that excludes workers at 90% of health care facilities across the city,” George W. Greene, president and CEO of the Hospital Assn. of Southern California, said in a statement.

SEIU-UHW spokesperson Renée Saldaña said in a statement that “as healthcare workers leave the industry in droves due to the trauma of the pandemic and record inflation, it’s outrageous that millionaire hospital executives are trying to cut wages for their lowest-paid employees.”

“We’re confident that voters will stand with frontline caregivers over greedy CEOs and we look forward to seeing similar measures passed in cities throughout California,” Saldaña said.

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The union has also alleged that signature gatherers for the referendum campaign misled Angelenos to get signatures, telling people that their signatures were needed “to pay workers more” and “to raise the healthcare workers’ wages,” according to incident reports gathered by SEIU-UHW.

The labor group said it had turned in more than 1,000 forms from people seeking to withdraw their signatures after learning more about the referendum.

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In reaction to those complaints, opponents of the wage measure said that their petition and messaging had been clear — that “the ordinance is bad policy that is inequitable and unfair for workers.”

The L.A. measure does not cover public hospitals and a range of clinics that are not affiliated with privately owned hospitals. Union officials, asked about its limited scope, said that the city could not legally set wages for county and state employees and added that they had pursued a state measure to bolster wages to at least $25 hourly at community clinics.

SEIU-UHW has also been pushing to boost wages for workers at private hospitals in other cities across L.A. County. Similar wage measures for healthcare workers also passed in Long Beach and Downey; in Duarte and Inglewood, such proposals are headed to the ballot for voters to decide in November.

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Council members in Monterey Park also voted in favor of a $25 hourly wage, but the decision faced a court challenge and a judge ruled that it could not be enforced, although the matter could still head to the ballot.

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