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    Thursday, February 02, 2023

    Just compensation for health care workers

    After his recent attempt to help negotiate a labor contract for healthcare workers at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital failed to move the needle, New London Mayor Michael Passero made a pointed observation about the compensation levels of the hospital’s lowest-paid union members.

    “We’re finding out that the lowest-paid workers are working for poverty wages,” said Passero, an attorney who worked in the area of labor law before his election as mayor. “It means L+M’s leaving our social service agencies and state government to take care of their workers,” he said. “No one’s going to be able to live on $15.50 an hour.”

    And the hospital knows it. At a church service following the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. walk from city hall, a union representative told the congregation that a food pantry is available at the hospital for workers who need to make ends meet.

    Every time the negotiations between a major employer and an employee bargaining unit reach an impasse, and one or both parties make the details public, the information should be checked for how far the average member’s wages will go toward meeting the cost of living in the area.

    In a time of inflated prices, such as we have now, a contract that elapsed last June would likely fall short of compensating workers adequately. Paying household bills has gotten tougher than it was the last time the contract was negotiated. To be fair, both sides have recognized the need for wage increases. However, the union, which signaled it would move closer to the hospital’s offer, was met with a unilateral corporate decision to proceed with what the employer intended.

    Even in less inflationary times, the failure of an employer to pay a living wage passes the buck -- or lack of bucks -- to backup agencies and programs. Passero, who oversees a city government that includes a social services department dealing with basic human needs, was pointing out a fact that too often we fail to connect to labor contracts: A household that cannot afford to pay all its bills will need public assistance to afford food, rent, heat or other necessities. Taxpayer assistance.

    For a tax-exempt nonprofit with a mission to serve the public, which seeks and gets financial support from public donations and advertises that it operates with “the greatest of care,” Lawrence + Memorial and its parent, the Yale New Haven Health system, seem to have forgotten that not long ago they were calling these workers “heroes.”

    Statewide, the pandemic was hard on people in health care support jobs. Many became infected with the coronavirus and others had to leave to care for children. The departures exacerbated an industry worker shortage that persists, affecting workloads.

    Local 5123 of AFT Connecticut includes L+M employees working in food and nutrition, housekeeping, laundry, patient transport, stockrooms, driving and messenger work, groundskeeping and certain tech aid. The local’s picket line Wednesday outside the hospital on Montauk Avenue in New London served as a reminder that many of the 900 union members are people of color, doing jobs that were indeed performed heroically during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that one of their stated demands is adequate staffing.

    Connecticut’s minimum wage is $14 per hour and, by statute, has been increasing in steps since 2019. It is set to rise to $15 per hour in June, not because the minimum wage is historically enough to live on but because the state rightly determined to bring household income to a level that comes closer. A person making $15.50, as cited by the mayor, is only slightly better off than one on minimum wage.

    For decades, people in this region who have received in-patient or out-patient care at Lawrence + Memorial have commented on the quality of the staff, from nurses to support staff. The support workers consistently treat patients and families with courtesy and professionalism. They deserve pay and staffing that will allow them to keep doing their work in a way that does the hospital credit and helps people to get well.

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