Workers at the Watts Health Center have authorized a strike if further negotiations with management fall through.
Members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 721 claim the Watts Healthcare Corporation (WHC) is denying them a fair contract, and that threatens public safety.
Two more bargaining sessions were scheduled for this week, according to Coral Itzcalli a spokesperson for the workers. Failed negations would mean a work stoppage per their 99 percent yes vote, she said.
According to Local 721, more than half of the clinic’s staff is represented by its members, and a strike could lead to a crippling work slowdown at the 11 sites overseen by WHC.
“Management has an opportunity to do the right thing, and as a representative of SEIU Local 721, I hope that management will hear their workers, will understand that the current proposals on the table are unfair, unrealistic, and a complete contradiction to their own mission as a clinic,” stated Itzcalli.
Dr. Roderick Seamster, WHC president and CEO, told the Sentinel the only position he has on the matter is that he has not been informed of any authorized strike by center workers. “No one’s talked to me about that … We’re proceeding with successful negotiations,” Seamster stated.
The contract for SEIU 721 members has been temporarily extended since it expired on Dec. 31, 2017, according to a press release issued by the workers on May 10, a day after the vote.
Their vote comes after more than six months of unacceptable contract proposals from WHC leadership, they said. According to the workers, problems include proposed hikes in employee healthcare contributions by up to 275 percent without a significant raise in wages to mitigate the surge in healthcare costs.
“I was pleased by the vote,” stated Starr Sanders, a bargaining team member and seven-year substance abuse counselor at the House of Uhuru.
She and the workers say they stand united in protecting the quality of the services they provide to the predominantly Black and Brown Watts community.
Last year SEIU 721 members helped care for more than 24,400 WHC clients during 91,482 patient encounters, according to a statement issued by Itzcalli. The vast majority were Black and Latino who earned below the 100 percent the federal poverty level. For 2017, that was $12,060 for a single person household and $24,600 for a family of four, the statement continued.
“Management doesn’t seem to really understand that in order to have quality service and quality care for our patients, we need to be able to give the best services possible which is being adequately staffed,” Sanders stated.
“I’m a single parent with two children … I can’t afford $300/$400 out of my check and you’re not giving me a pay increase,” Sanders stated of proposed hikes in health insurance premiums.
Ultimately, the workers say, their fight for a fair contract is about keeping high-quality staff in L.A.’s most underserved communities. They want to eradicate high turnover rates resulting in staff shortages, work overloads, and increased wait times for patients.
Management has also rejected proposals to strengthen culturally competent care by raising the pay differential for bilingual workers, refusing to adjust wages to industry standards and engaging in unfair labor practices that further exacerbate threats to patient care in Watts and surrounding communities, SEIU Local 721 further alleged.
“None of us are working here to get rich. We’re here not for the money but for the community,” said Hector Martinez, a nutrition counselor who’s worked at WHC for 22 years. “We want to be able to help all the children who live in these neighborhoods thrive and succeed, but right now the top people at the clinic are making it even harder to take care of our own children,” said Martinez.