100 more workers at Keck Hospital of USC authorize strike

Keck Medical Center of USCJanuary 20, 2016

Nearly 900 Keck–USC workers protest poverty wages that qualify many for public assistance

LOS ANGELES — In an overwhelming rejection of a contract providing poverty-level wages, inadequate sick leave, and budget-busting health insurance costs, dietary and food-service workers at Keck Hospital of USC voted 92 percent in favor of a strike if management fails to improve its offer.

The University of Southern California is one of the state’s largest private universities and the largest private-sector employer in Los Angeles. It has a $4.6 billion endowment and pays multi-million-dollar salaries and other perks to its top executives. Yet, USC pays many of its healthcare workers wages so low that they qualify for Medi-Cal, food stamps, and other forms of public assistance.

“It’s unconscionable that one of the richest universities in the state forces some of its most dedicated employees to rely on public assistance,” said NUHW President Sal Rosselli. “It’s disrespectful to the workers and it’s unfair to taxpayers.”

With yesterday’s vote, the hospital’s nearly 100 dietary staff join 800 other hospital workers in calling for a strike unless management agrees to bargain in good faith. In December, 800 caregivers — including nursing personnel, Surgical Assistants, Respiratory Therapists, Nuclear Medicine Techs, Environmental Service Aides, and Stationary Engineers — voted 93 percent in favor of a strike. Both groups of workers have filed unfair labor practice charges against their employers for violating the National Labor Relations Act. A joint strike, which could happen in early February, would involve nearly 900 NUHW-represented employees at Keck–USC Hospital.

The contract offered to the hospital’s dietary staff would leave many workers earning as little as 15 cents above minimum wage. Meanwhile, employees must pay more than one-quarter of their monthly income to obtain health insurance for their families, forcing many to rely on Medi-Cal or go uninsured.

Among the 900 caregivers at Keck-US Hospital, one of every six earns less than $15.

“We have people who are forced to choose, ‘Should I pay my child’s health insurance, or buy groceries to feed her,’” says Judy Oliva, a grill cook at Keck–USC. “That’s a decision no parent should have to make, especially one working full time for a major university.”

The workers are calling on the administration at Keck–USC and the University to exercise their authority over Sodexo, the hospital’s subcontractor for food services, to ensure a fair contract that includes living wages and affordable healthcare.

The workers are also protesting a sick-leave policy that requires cooks, nutrition assistants and food service workers, who prepare meals for all of the hospital’s patients and visitors, to work when they’re ill — a situation with potentially dangerous consequences for vulnerable patients.

“We’ve had people come in with colds, flu, and some serious infections because they had no more time off. When they get to work they’re putting everyone at risk, but they have to, because if they don’t, they’ll lose their jobs. Keck–USC and Sodexo put lives in danger so they don’t have to pay overtime to cover a sick employee’s shift,” says dietary worker Sandra Maldonado.

“USC tries to hide behind the Sodexo contract to insulate itself from the consequences of Sodexo’s poverty wages,” said Maldonado. “But the university has a duty to make sure that its contractors are behaving honorably and treating the workers with respect. Sodexo fails on both counts.”

Keck Hospital of USC is a 401-bed hospital with more than 10,000 admissions annually. It’s part of Keck Medicine of USC, which generates revenues of $1.2 billion a year. The hospital is privately owned by the University of Southern California, which reported revenues of $4.6 billion, profits of $657 million, and an endowment of $4.6 billion in 2014. In 2014, Keck Medicine’s CEO Thomas Jackiewicz was paid $1.7 million, a 30 percent increase from the prior year.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers is a democratic, worker-led union that represents 11,000 healthcare workers in California, including 900 employees of Keck Hospital of USC.