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Fight Over Health Care Minimum Wage Yields a Split Decision in Southern California

A person seen from the knees down and wearing what look like green scrubs is pushing a blue mop across the floor. The floor is smoothy an reflective where it has just been cleaned, and a yellow bucket, also reflecting against the shiny floor, is in the background.
A pair of measures on the November ballot were aimed at raising wages, particularly for some of the lowest-paid health facility workers, such as nursing assistants, security guards, and janitors.
(Stock image by Liudmila Chernetska
Getty Images/iStockphoto)
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An expensive fight over health worker pay in two Southern California cities appears to have ended in a draw, with each side claiming a victory and a loss.

Inglewood residents were poised to approve a ballot measure that would boost the minimum wage to $25 at private hospitals, psychiatric facilities, and dialysis clinics. The latest vote count showed Measure HC leading 54% to 46%, according to Los Angeles County election officials. In Duarte, roughly 35 miles away, voters were on track to decisively reject a similar proposal, Measure J, 63% to 37%.

Los Angeles County election officials plan to release final results Dec. 5.

The contests were the first ballot-box fight in what seems likely to be a multiyear battle between a powerful labor union and the influential hospital industry. Similar proposals are scheduled to go before voters in Los Angeles, Downey, Long Beach, and Monterey Park in 2024.

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All were spearheaded by the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, which represents roughly 100,000 workers, including medical assistants, food service workers, and custodial staff.

Suzanne Jimenez, the union’s political director, said the union still plans to pursue a $25 minimum wage in other cities and, eventually, statewide.

“We’re still moving forward on all fronts,” she said.

George Greene, president of the Hospital Association of Southern California, said in a statement that hospitals support “fair wages” for health workers but that their pay should be discussed at a “state or regional level.”

“Deeply flawed” local ordinances, he said, are “bad policy and the wrong approach.”

The union used Inglewood and Duarte, both in Los Angeles County, as test cases for raising wages, particularly for some of the lowest-paid health facility workers, such as nursing assistants, security guards, and janitors. Because the measures are city ordinances, they wouldn’t apply to state- and county-run medical facilities, just private hospitals and clinics.

Union officials argue that a $25 minimum wage is necessary to retain and attract workers in a sector that has been understaffed and overworked throughout the covid-19 pandemic.

The minimum wage in most of Los Angeles County is $16.04 per hour. But for a single adult with no children, the living wage — the amount that person would need to cover typical expenses such as food, housing, and transportation in the county — is $21.89 hourly, or about $45,500 a year, according to a tool from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Occupations such as “healthcare support” generally pay around $33,000 annually in the county, according to the same tool.

Hospitals campaigned heavily against the union’s proposal and argued it would create “unequal pay” for staff at private and public facilities. An analysis commissioned by the California Hospital Association estimated that instituting a $25 minimum wage in the 10 cities originally targeted by the union would have raised costs for private facilities in those communities by $392 million a year, a 6.9% increase.

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In Inglewood, Measure HC will apply to Centinela Hospital Medical Center and several for-profit dialysis clinics if it prevails. About 315 employees of the hospital would see their wages rise, according to Jimenez, who said she doesn’t know how many dialysis clinic employees would be affected.

In Duarte, a wealthier suburb of about 21,000 people east of Los Angeles, Measure J would have applied only to City of Hope, a cancer hospital.

Jimenez said the differences between those communities, and their residents’ experiences with the health care system, could account for how the measures fared. She said she noticed that Inglewood voters had more direct experience with Centinela — they may have visited the emergency room or had a baby — than Duarte voters had with City of Hope.

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  • KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.