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Wage hikes for some workers, not others. Why are city leaders picking winners and losers?

People seated in a large hall and wearing protective masks applaud
Jessica Atondo, who works at Kaiser, and others celebrate the Los Angeles City Council’s final approval June 29 of an ordinance raising the minimum wage for some healthcare workers in the city to $25 per hour.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Over the summer, the cities of Los Angeles, Downey, Long Beach and Monterey Park decided that certain workers in select private healthcare facilities should be paid at least $25 an hour starting this month.

Why $25 an hour? Why only certain workers? Because that’s what the advocates asked for. What effect might across-the-board raises have on the healthcare system? Nobody knows. The wage increases were proposed, considered and enacted in a matter of weeks, without any meaningful analysis of the potential impacts.

This is sloppy policymaking. There are occasions when lawmakers intervene to set employee compensation — the minimum wage is one example, as are prevailing wages paid to construction workers on government-aided projects. But governments shouldn’t set pay willy-nilly just for some workers in some facilities, and they most definitely shouldn’t do it without considering or debating the repercussions.

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Los Angeles’ move to end oil and gas extraction is a climate and health milestone. But the 20-year timeline is too long, and officials need to work with urgency to ensure most wells are shut down sooner.

The wage hikes were championed by the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare West, a politically influential union that represents medical and nursing assistants, technicians, maintenance specialists, food services workers, among other healthcare staff. The union has argued that the pay hike is necessary because front-line healthcare workers are paid too little and are burned out by the pandemic and leaving the industry.

The union gathered thousands of signatures in attempts to qualify their “Healthcare Worker Minimum Wage” initiative in half a dozen L.A. County cities. The city councils in L.A., Downey, Long Beach and Monterey Park adopted the measure outright; the Duarte and Inglewood city councils chose to send the wage initiative to voters on the November ballot.

The initiative applies to privately owned health facilities including acute-care hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, and clinics or skilled nursing facilities that are part of such hospitals and requires them to pay at least $25 an hour to a range of workers, including aides, housekeepers, guards, janitors and other employees who are not supervisors or managers.

A coalition of hospital groups has sued to block the pay hike in Los Angeles, saying it will drive up costs, create workforce upheaval and disparities and could put some struggling facilities, such as Barlow Respiratory Hospital, out of business. The groups say that in L.A., for example, the wage law excludes employees at 90% of healthcare facilities in the city. (It doesn’t apply to public healthcare facilities, community clinics or other private healthcare providers, such as Planned Parenthood.)

Pandemic-era remote access to government meetings should be preserved for the public, not for officials who would like to shield themselves from their constituents.

The wage increases are on hold in L.A. and Downey, after hospital groups collected enough signatures for a referendum asking voters to uphold or repeal the wage hike.

This isn’t the first industry-specific wage hike enacted in Los Angeles. In 2014 the City Council set a minimum wage for hotel workers that‘s currently $18.86 an hour. At that time, the council commissioned economic analyses and held hearings to take public input. This time, the council didn’t even attempt to put up a façade of critical thinking or deliberation. The council adopted the $25 healthcare minimum wage with no discussion of the details, no study of the potential impacts, no debate, and Mayor Eric Garcetti signed it.

At least the Long Beach City Council commissioned an economic analysis, albeit a rushed one, before the leaders adopted the initiative.

To be sure, there are no angels in this fight.

The California Hospital Assn., which is leading the fight against the $25 wage hike, has demonstrated that its members are willing to raise workers’ pay when it suits their interests. Just look at the backroom deal the association recently negotiated with SEIU-UHW. The hospitals wanted to postpone seismic upgrades designed to keep facilities open after a major earthquake — an essential public safety measure — and in exchange, the union would see the minimum wage increased to between $19 and $24 an hour, with the highest pay going to urban facilities.

The deal was scuttled after the nurses union and other labor groups accused the parties of trading wages for safety.

The SEIU-UHW has become a repeat user of California’s initiative system. The union is trying for a third time to pass a statewide ballot measure — this time, Proposition 29 — to impose new regulations on dialysis clinics, as part of its campaign to unionize workers at those centers. And in retaliation for the hospital association’s referendum to overturn the healthcare minimum wage ordinance in L.A., the union submitted paperwork to the Los Angeles city clerk for yet another initiative, this time to limit hospital executive compensation.

This is part of a larger campaign by the union to bypass the slow, demanding work of raising members’ wages through collective bargaining and instead go directly to local city councils or voters. Advocates, of course, are going to pull all the levers of power at their disposal. But elected leaders have a responsibility to balance competing interests and weigh the impacts of their decisions. In this case they failed.


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