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Long Beach voters this November could decide whether to raise the minimum wage from $15 to $25 for health care workers following an initiative from an arm of one of the nation’s largest service employees unions.

The initiative from the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) aims to raise the minimum wage in private sector hospitals, integrated health systems and dialysis clinics.

The plan, which would impact Long Beach’s largest hospitals and smaller clinics, would cover a broad range of workers in a health care setting, including aides, technicians, maintenance workers, janitors, housekeeping staff, groundskeepers and food service workers.

Proponents with the SEIU-UHW say the wage increase would recognize the value of essential health care workers other than doctors and nurses who have also put their lives at risk in the pandemic. Opponents from the state’s largest hospital systems, including Kaiser Permanente and Dignity Health, say the effort unfairly excludes public sector workers and would lead to increased health care costs for consumers and patients.

The SEIU-UHW began circulating a petition for the initiative in February, and on June 6, the Long Beach City Clerk approved a petition with more than 41,000 signatures. Under the city charter, proponents need 27,054 valid signatures (10% off the voters in the city), for the petition to be found sufficient, according to City Clerk Monique De La Garza.

“They were able to gather a lot of signatures in a short amount of time,” De La Garza said.

The Los Angeles County Registrar Recorder/County Clerk is now reviewing the signatures, with results expected in mid-July, she said. If the signatures are verified, the Long Beach City Council will be required to adopt an ordinance mandating a wage increase or place the issue on the November ballot.

The SEIU-UHW, which represents more than 100,000 workers across the state, has also launched petitions in nine other area cities including Los Angeles, Lynwood, Monterey Park, Downey and Culver City.

The main SEIU represents more than 1.9 million workers in the United States and Canada and is a top donor for Democratic political campaigns. The initiative could become an issue in a heated election season with a tight mayoral race in Long Beach between City Council members Suzie Price and Rex Richardson.

On Tuesday, the Long Beach City Council unanimously approved a request for an economic impact report on the potential benefits and risks of implementing a citywide private healthcare minimum wage increase.

The council item was proposed by 6th District Councilmember Suely Saro and co-sponsored by 2nd District Councilmember Cindy Allen. Allen said she supports the workers but would also like to better understand both the positive and negative impact on the local economy.

“It seems to me that the community is ready to stand up for health care workers,” she said. “These workers have put themselves in harm’s way for the rest of us … they’re overworked and understaffed and barley make more than minimum wage.”

Price, who represents the 3rd District, said she would like more information on the percentage of healthcare workers who would be included or excluded in the initiative before moving forward.

Richardson, who represents the 9th District, said he has heard “good and bad” feedback on the initiative, which is why it’s important to study the issue.

“Considering what we’ve been through, lifting up our health care workers as much as we can is incredibly important,” he said.

Long Beach City Manager Tom Modica said the city has an Aug. 9 deadline to make a decision on how to move forward.

Speaking before the council, some local health care workers told of their experiences during the pandemic.

Greg Shorter, a Long Beach resident and orthopedic technician, said he struggles to afford food and rent.

“From the beginning we have shown up to care for patients despite high risks of infections … now we are dealing with mental trauma and burnout,” he said. “Too many of us struggle to afford housing and other basic needs, while our employers are making record profits. At they very least we should be paid fair wages.” 

Adena Tessler, regional vice president of the Hospital Association of Southern California, speaking before the council, said the initiative only targets private workers and excludes those who do the same job in public hospitals, community clinics, Planned Parenthood clinics and University of California facilities, which all account for the majority of health care workers.

“We all agree health care workers are heroes, but this measure is not a way to show our gratitude,” she said. “This measure is deeply flawed.”

SEIU-UHW Political Director Suzanne Jimenez in an interview Tuesday said the initiative can boost morale for burned out workers, retain many who are leaving the industry and pay a decent wage that would allow people to live in the cities where they work.

Jimenez said it’s not only doctors and nurses who risked their lives in the pandemic and that every worker is vital. The initiative could impact hundreds of workers in Long Beach, she said.

“We believe everybody in the hospital was at similar risk, and it’s pretty upsetting to divide workers who all risk their lives every single day,” she said. “These health care workers are exhausted and tired and don’t feel respected for the hard work they’ve been doing for the last two and a half years.”