By Nadin Abbott
Imagine, if you will, making $9.01/hour, being head of household, and having to pay $118.88 per pay period for your health insurance. Assuming you work forty hours, before payroll deduction, that is $$720.80 every fifteen days. This is the situation right now at Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, where employees working for Sodexo Corporation, the subcontractor for dietary, housekeeping, clerical and Engineering services are negotiating a new three year contract.
What is the company offering? According to Housekeeping Shop Steward Alex Burstein “Sodexo is being difficult” and are holding at keeping salary increases at 2.25% over a three year period. This is not even a cost of living increase. When pay averages at $9.09/ Hour these workers have a difficult time making rent, let alone paying bills, or buying food.
I asked Burstein if the company has gone so far as to tell employees where to apply for Cal-Fresh to Medical? He said no, but he had to use the Union food pantry twice. They are offered medical, but look at the price above to see what for a family policy.
Management is also not budging on healthcare costs, which are lower for Sharp hospital employees who get higher pay. For example, the same head of household who works for Sharp, let’s say a nurse, pays $96.42 per pay period.
As Rebecca put it, she is an employee, “I can’t afford insurance, we can’t get our teeth fixed.” She smiled, she is missing front teeth. It would run her about two thousand dollars a year for that insurance. This worker is making a gross pay of $17,299.20. The Federal poverty rate for a family of four is $23,050
Shop Steward José Ramirez told me that “we will continue to fight so these people understand that we need a wage increase. They must take into account that everything is going up. We work hard. There are families to maintain, there are rents to pay, and bills to pay.”
He also said that the company has not told them how to apply for county services such as Cal-Fresh.
Speaking of rent, Carmén Flores, who lives downtown, said, “It’s not enough to pay a dignified rent.” Suffice it to say, a good chunk of her meager pay also goes into public transportation. A monthly pass runs you $75.00 “on the outside.” The hospital at least has a deal where they can get them for $50.00.
For reference, a daily pass on MTS costs $5.00. That is half the pay for one hour. It runs you $7.00 if you need a new Compass card. How do I know this? When I can, I ditch the car.
Ernestina Gury came to Grossmont five years ago. She started at $8.50/ hour. These days she has barely broken the nine dollar barrier, making $9.01/hour. As is, what management wants is to drive older workers with some seniority away, as they would much rather have a part time work force.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
“He, he, ho, Sodexo’s greed gotta go!”
So what is going on? Sharp used to have departments such as dietary services, engineering, clerical and housekeeping in-house. In order to cut down the cost they first contracted with Marriott Corporation. According to John Conroy, a former employee and one of the two Union organizers (the other is Blaustein), pay dropped from $9.00/hour to the minimum wage at the time of $5.25.
They were also promised that there would be no lay offs. Well, the work force was cut from one hundred and sixty seven employees to sixty nine. Not surprisingly, a few workers decided to organize a union.
It took four years and, according to Conroy, things got a little better since joining the United Healthcare Employees they could bargain for better pay. Still, Sodexo managed hospitals in San Diego have the lowest pay when compared to other hospitals, both Union and non-Union. Not surprisingly Grossmont also has a high turnover.
“No Justice, no peace.”
“No contract, no peace.”
According to Patty Arballo the company called for an emergency mandatory meeting to keep turnout at this three hour rally down. “They are trying to discourage employees from picketing for our contract.” She added that it is very disrespectful of the employees.
Arballo also told me a very revealing story. For twenty years everybody has been getting a little gift for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is a ten dollar gift certificate. This year Dietary did not get this little gratuity.
“Que queremos? (What do we want?)
There is more, according to Faustina Perez, even though they have a lot of support, workers, especially male counterparts, are afraid of retaliation and of losing their jobs. Many of the workers are Latino, and men especially are afraid of not being able to provide for their families. The mere rumor of this, even if illegal, is enough to keep people away from the picket line.
I also had the chance to talk to an upper management member, who did not provide his name. His reaction, “if they don’t like it, they can go get a job somewhere else, or start a business.”
The Central Labor Council
Workers today were joined by the Central Council activists including Evan McClaughin, Sandy Naranjo (who led many of the chants early on) and Lucas O’Connor. Late in the picket Lorena Gonzalez, Treasurer-Secretary of the San Diego-Imperial County Central Labor Council came, literally from the airport.
Gonzales told the workers that “the entire labor movement will stand with you through these negotiations.” She also said that when cuts come, it always affects the least who can afford them the most. She promised to call Mike Murphy in the morning, the CEO of Grossmont, and when invited to join the negotiating team tomorrow, she agreed.
On a personal note, a lot of these interviews were conducted in Spanish. I mention this, because a lot of these stories disappear within the boundaries of language barriers.
Photos By Nadin Abbott