Maria Ramirez fears that she will never reach retirement. At 62, she's been a housekeeper at Children's Hospital in Kearny Mesa for 36 years. She makes the highest a housekeeper can be paid at Children's, $11.41 an hour. She reached the wage cap 10 years ago and has not received a raise since.
At her son's house in Chula Vista, where Ramirez lives, she slowly fans herself with her most recent pay stub and lets her body sink into the worn living room couch. Piecing together Spanish and English, Ramirez describes her modest savings plan: $60 a month into a 401k. She smiles wistfully at the thought of retiring and owning her own home, which, at her current salary, is just a distant dream.
"I don't make enough money for everything," she said. "It's impossible."
Ramirez makes almost $4,000 less than what the Center on Policy Initiatives determined to be San Diego's self-sufficiency wage of $27,500 per year. CPI, a labor-friendly think tank, reported last August that 53 percent of clerical, service and maintenance employees at Children's receive less than the self-sufficiency wage.
Fed up, Ramirez and her coworkers are taking action. A mild-mannered grandmother at home, Ramirez wears an altogether different persona at a July 19 demonstration outside the hospital. Standing in the blazing heat next to about a hundred of her coworkers, she trades laughter for chants and cheers.
This protest is only the latest battle in the nearly three-year negotiation between the hospital and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Ramirez and her union are fighting for wage increases, cheaper health insurance, greater job security and the opportunity to work more closely with patients.
The low wages of service employees like Ramirez contradict the financial health of the hospital. Despite a downturn in 2002, Children's has seen a substantial increase in profits in recent years. Hospital revenues above expenses increased from $7.5 million in 2004 to $32 million last year, according to IRS filings and press reports. The success is all the more impressive given the declining payments from Medi-Cal and other government sources that have strained the budgets of several county hospitals.
A spokesperson for Children's Hospital, Thomas Hanscom, conceded that the past year had been the best in hospital history, but he said the facility has many competing demands for that extra cash.
"Children's Hospital represents a safety net for children requiring health care in San Diego County. More than 50 percent of the children who come to us for services have little or no insurance, and often their expenses are subsidized through charity care," he said. "When we close a year and say we made X amount of money beyond expenses, that's money that we allocate to new equipment, and in fair and equitable raises and benefits to our employees."
Of course, while service workers struggle for their piece of the pie, the hospital's top executives have reaped the benefits of recent success. The IRS documents indicate that former CEO Blair Sadler made almost $500,000 between July 2003 and June 2004. The incomes of the top four senior vice presidents ranged from $273,000 to $360,000.
"You'll find those salaries are set by a voluntary board of trustees who take a look at industry means and set a salary to attract and retain a good, solid, knowledgeable CEO," he said.
Good, solid, knowledgeable CEOs may come at a price, but there is an implicit price for paying low wages to service workers.
"All kinds of service jobs, whether in healthcare or retail, are actually falling behind to meet the cost of living," CPI spokesperson Paul Karr said.
Karr added that the Children's Hospital situation should be a concern to all taxpayers whose money goes toward public programs for low-wage workers. CPI's report, titled "Caring at a Cost," stated that Children's Hospital employees on public-assistance programs receive a total of about $700,000 from federal, state and local governments.
Children's Hospital service workers earn lower wages than that of comparable workers at other unionized hospitals in San Diego County. The starting pay for housekeeping attendants and food-service workers, who comprise a large portion of those protesting at Children's, is anywhere from 13 percent to 37 percent lower than at other union hospitals, according to CPI.
"They should make us equal to the other hospitals; we are doing the same work," said Cindy Lewis, a 28-year-old employee of Children's Hospital.
As a long-time employee of the hospital, Ramirez has become something of a role model for her co-workers. During negotiations in July, she sat with the bargaining team for the first time. The proposed contract, which would give a slight wage increase but provide no promises of job security, was a disappointment to her. For low-skill jobs like housekeeping, job security has become a big issue.
In the early '80s, and then again in 2002, the hospital subcontracted Ramirez's department to another company, leading to the loss of health insurance and other benefits for workers. The hospital's improved financial prospects later allowed the housekeepers to come back on staff.
SEIU and Children's were scheduled to return to the bargaining table on Aug. 23 for a third meeting under newly appointed CEO Kathleen Sellick. SEIU did not accept the contract proposed in mid-July and no progress was made in a meeting on Aug. 15.
The failure came as no surprise to SEIU organizers who were discouraged by Sellick's previous treatment of the union, including efforts to delay a worker's picket that took place the day before the July bargaining session on the hospital campus.
"Instead of trying to silence our voices," Ramirez said, "[Sellick] needs to negotiate a fair contract with us."
Then Ramirez can get back to being a grandmother.
Staff writer Eric Wolff contributed to this story.