Jay Villarreal addresses fellow protestors outside St. Mary's Medical Center as they push for higher wages. Photo by Jason Ruiz.
The protest against Dignity Health, the parent company of St. Mary’s, was part of nearly 30 similar events that will run through next week, as workers represented by the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West fight for higher wages. The union represents 530 employees at St. Mary’s, with jobs ranging from radiology technicians to secretaries and clerks.
The union said the proposals to freeze wages and potentially cut retirement benefits by up to 25 percent come on the heels of other non-profit health care systems, including Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health and Verity Health, all providing their workers with three percent raises.
Jay Villarreal, who works as a social work case manager at St. Mary’s, said that he hasn’t received a raise in years, but does get a $300 bonus around Christmas time. However, he said that when accounting for taxes, this equates to about $175, and doesn’t count toward his pension, since that’s based on salary figures, not bonuses.
Villareal said for the same job at Kaiser he could make about $15 more per hour and about $10 more per hour if he worked at Long Beach Memorial. Villarreal and the union are calling for a modest cost of living wage, something he said could help keep workers from leaving to work at other hospitals.
“We’ve had employees in my program leave for other hospitals because we don’t pay enough and there’s better benefits at other places,” Villarreal said. “We want three percent per year for the next six years, at least until the next contract is renewed. And three percent is your basic cost of living adjustment.”
Vice Mayor Rex Richardson made a brief appearance to pledge his support to the picketers outside the west entrance to the St. Mary’s Medical Center, promising the city would stay committed to ensuring that labor and business worked together to ensure that workers were being taken care of.
“This is about our livelihood, this about taking care of our families and our children,” Richardson said. “We don’t want to strike, but we will if we have to, because this is about us our doing our jobs as mothers and fathers and us having dignity in the workplace. At the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to.”
Nurses are not covered by the SEIU, as they belong to the California Nurses Association. However, those salary figures, too, fall short when comparing Dignity Health employees to other hospitals in the city as well as nationally.
According to PayScale, a salary survey website that helps job seekers and employers compare compensations for various job titles, Licensed Vocational Nurses in the Dignity Health system can earn a salary that ranges from about $34,000-$64,000 when accounting for overtime. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the national average at about $42,490.
The median income for registered nurses (RN) at Memorial ($88,104) also outpaces that of Dignity Health’s ($79,277), according to the site.
Dignity Health operates hospitals in three states, including Nevada and Arizona, and had 19 executives take home at least $1 million in compensation, amounting to a grand total of $42 million in 2014. Dignity Health CEO Lloyd Dean, who made headlines when he was appointed to the board of fast food giant McDonalds last year, has consistently seen his total earnings reach into the multiple millions of dollars per year.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Dignity Health apologized to patients, physicians and staff for any inconveniences that might arise from the informational picket outside St. Mary’s Medical Center. They said they believed the best place to resolve labor disputes was at the bargaining table.
“The health care workers participating in the informational picket are valued and respected members of our health care team,” the statement read. “We will continue to negotiate in good faith in the hopes of reaching a fair and equitable agreement with our union.”
As far as what the future looks like for the SEIU workers at St. Mary’s, Villarreal said they’re going to continue to protest and go to the negotiating table in hopes that Dignity will cave and agree to a raise. While strike talk hasn’t entered the conversation, he said that it’s something everyone hopes can be averted.
“None of us wants to strike,” he said. “It hurts them and it hurts us so we’re trying to avoid that. “