Fighting for what they believe is a fair wage increase due to inflation, increased health care rates, and rising cost of living, about 30 employees from Sharp Grossmont Hospital carried picket signs and shouted in unison outside the hospital at the intersection of Grossmont Center and Health Center drives on Monday afternoon.
The picketers were housekeeping and dietary staff of the hospital, employed by one of its subcontractors Sodexho. About 250 employees work in these departments, and are in the midst of a long re-negotiation of their current contract, which expired Sept. 30, and has been extended three times already, as union leaders fight for a wage increase of 3 percent.
“These are low paid workers,” said Bill Rouse, who is negotiating for the workers on behalf of the United Health Care Employees (UHCE), an affiliate of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees. “The starting wage rate is $9.09 per hour. They average about $9.50 across all of them, and all we are asking is for a 3 percent wage increase.”
The staff of the housekeeping and dietary departments clean the entire hospital, including patient rooms. They also provide meals for patients and work in the cafeteria. Rouse said they are the hospital’s unsung heroes, who work hard for little pay or visibility, but serve a vital function in patient care.
Rouse helped negotiate a 3 percent increase for the nurse’s union last year. He also said that Sharp then gave a 3 percent wage increase to all of its non-union employees later that year.
“And yet somehow they can’t find a way to give the lowest paid dietary and housekeeping staff a 3 percent increase?” he asked.
UPDATE: Enrico Dinges, a public information officer with Sodexho responded to a Patch inquiry via email. He wrote:
Sodexo and the Union are continuing to meet and are hopeful of reaching a satisfying conclusion to their negotiations. It is important to the ongoing bargaining process that the parties' discussions remain private in order to allow for a robust discussion of all of the issues at the bargaining table. Therefore, it would be inappropriate to provide to any third party, any details about the current collective bargaining agreement, the issues in negotiations, or the position of the parties. You can be assured that Sodexo is fully committed to reaching an agreement with the Union that continues to provide its employees with very fair and competitive wages and fringe benefits.
Ellis Burstein is linen room attendant who has worked for the hospital for 33 years. He said that the Sodexho’s first offer made in June was “insulting.”
“They offered a three-year contract, with wage freezes for the first two years,” he said. “In the third year, they offered an increase of point-five percent. They knew we wouldn’t accept it, but that’s what they offered anyway.”
Burstein said the latest offer has upped that third-year increase to 1.75 percent.
The picketers held signs and marched back and forth in front of the hospital, engaging in chants like: “No corta, no peace,” “Si, se puede,” “one point seven five percent, won’t pay my rent.”
Burstein, who works a 40-hour work week, said that every department in the hospital is understaffed, including his. He said he frequently stays longer than is required for his shift, because there is so much work to be done.
“It’s very hard to constantly be moved from one job to another and then taken down to the office and being written up because you’re told the first job wasn’t done,” he said. “We need the help. They won’t give it to us. It’s like that scene in Mary Poppins where she and the kids jump around the room going ‘Snap, Snap’ and everything gets done. It’s like they expect that to happen.”
Rouse said that in addition to increases in the cost of living in San Diego, the employees are also facing an 11 percent increase in their health care costs. He said that the employees pay 40 percent of the premiums for their health care, and given how little they are paid, it’s untenable.
“Most of these employees are married, they have kids. Most of them don’t own homes and rents are going up,” said Rouse. “We know what gas prices are doing. A lot of them take the bus because they can’t afford a car and car insurance and gas. So rent and transportation and increased health insurance costs – they’re just falling behind.”
Patty Arballo, who works as a dietary clerk, and has been with the hospital for more than 20 years, said that she just wants what’s fair.
“Even the meager little increase they were offering first (wage freezes and 0.5 percent third year) that wouldn’t even pay for our health care costs,” she said. “[Management] keep saying that there’s no money, there’s no this, there’s no that, but I think that they could actually put a couple more percent.”
“It’s very hard for everybody, especially with the prices of gas and food fluctuating the way they are,” added Burstein. “And they expect us to settle for such a small amount, and that’s not right. The managers get perks. The managers get bonuses, and it’s not right that we’re told, ‘you grub for pennies so we can be comfortable.’”
Rouse said that the next negotiating meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 27. He hopes that a resolution can be reached by then. If not, he said the group will decide what course of action to take.
Arballo said that she hopes that a strike is not on the horizon.
“It’s always a scary position for a strike, and personally I don’t think it’s the best thing to do and I don’t think anyone else does either, but sometimes things go in directions that we can’t control,” she said. “We’ve been to the table with them 11 times. We’re going to continue to try and persuade management. It’s nothing we want to do. We’d rather sit down at the table and work something out and keep going on working giving the best patient care we can.”