July 21, 2006

“We want a fair contract!”

Children’s Hospital San Diego employees had a demonstration this week. They demand better wages and benefits

By Pablo Jaime Sainz

Although Maria Ramirez has been working for 36 years in maintenance at Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego, she only makes $11.41 an hour.

The 62-year-old woman hasn’t received a raise in nine years.

“I can’t retired because I haven’t been able to save enough because I can’t make it with my salary,” said Ramirez outside the hospital last Wednesday when a group of about 200 workers held a demonstration demanding better salaries and health insurance.

“Bosses don’t recognize our service to the hospital and our dedication to the children,” she said. “Some of my colleagues are surprised by how long it’s taken us to get a contract, but I’m not surprised. Hospital owners don’t care about us.”

For two years, these workers have been trying to negotiate a contract with the hospital’s top-level administration with no success.

“Workers are demanding higher minimum wages, more affordable health insurance and job security,” said Lucila Conde, a translator at Children´s Hospital and one of the most outspoken workers in the matter.

Originally, the workers, represented by the Service Employees International Union, had planned to hold a picket line outside the hospital.

But, according to Vaishalee Raja, SEIU representative, “Children’s Hospital has relied on legal maneuvering to delay a picket workers, in an effort to stop employees from publicly discussing the poor working conditions they are trying to change”.

Tom Hanscom, the hospital´s spokesperson, said on Wednesday that the petition that the Union made to the Federal Mediation Conciliation Service, which handles permits for public protests and strikes, contained many errors.

That’s the reason why the hos-pital’s lawyers sent a letter to the Union stating they couldn’t picket.

But the law didn’t prohibit the workers from doing a peaceful demonstration outside the hospital.

Maria Rivera, 45, has been working as a janitor for a year and a half.

“We’re here to demand fair wages,” said the Guadalajara native.

Her husband Luciano, who also works as a janitor at Children’s, has two jobs in order to support the family and two children.

“It’s not fair that the hospital owners make so much money yet they don’t think about workers,” Rivera said. “The work that we do, although is very humble labor, is something indispensable. Without us, the hospital wouldn’t be able to function properly.”

Rivera said that some of the nurses on her floor don’t talk to her anymore because she’s involved with the union.

“I don’t care. I’m fighting for my rights, for my family.”

Victoria Samaha, local director of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) San Diego, was there to support the workers.

“What these workers are demanding is fair. Many of them have large debts with the hospital for medical services for their children. They don’t even receive an employee discount.”

In the demonstration participated several religious groups, employees from other hospitals, and community organizations.

The union’s bargaining unit was scheduled to meet with hospital representatives to discuss the contract on Thursday.

But Hanscom said that the hospital already gave a fair contract to the workers which include better salaries and benefits.

The workers said that what the hospital is offering is not enough.

A recent study by the Center on Policy Initiatives found that more than half of the clerical, service, and maintenance employees at the hospital earned less than the self-sufficiency wage for a single adult in San Diego ($13.20 per hour).

Another aspect is health insurance. Children´s Hospital employees must pay anywhere from $200 to $624 per month for access to family health insurance. According to the same CPI study, nearly 40% of employees are either uninsured, rely on Medi-Cal or Medicaid, or purchase insurance from elsewhere because they can´t afford Children´s health plans.

“It´s ironic that we work at a children´s hospital and when our children get sick we can´t take them there because we can´t afford to pay the fees,” Conde said.

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