Moving backward

Pub date August 12, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe

San Francisco’s city budget was signed into law Aug. 4, but a group of city workers is pushing the Board of Supervisors to reverse a cut that they say reflects a giant step backward for progressive San Francisco values.

Service Employees International Union Local 1021, about 18,000 strong in San Francisco, has launched a campaign to restore pay cuts to certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and unit clerks who staff the city’s medical facilities, arguing that the demotions reverse a decades-old commitment pay equity between men and women.

Proposition H, approved by voters in November 1986, enshrined the principle of comparable worth in San Francisco. It required the city to ensure that municipal jobs dominated primarily by women provided wages on par with male-dominated jobs that have similar qualifications.

Jobs held by mostly female employees also tend be staffed by people of color, so the move to create equity in pay was meant to address systemic sexism and racial discrimination. Unit clerks and CNAs seem to fit the bill, and their salaries were gradually increased after 1986.

As part of the midyear budget cuts, 88 CNAs who work at SF General Hospital were laid off and simultaneously rehired as patient care assistants, a job with similar responsibilities but only 79 percent of the salary (from an average annual salary of $56,589 down to $45,032). Another group of CNAs is scheduled for similar demotions in November. Cuts to clerical workers’ wages are also pending and most will be reclassified with 15 percent less pay (from $52,845 to $45,266).

"It wipes out the advantage that they had," says Local 1021 health care industry chair Ed Kinchley. "Group by group, they’re wiping out the pay differential."

"This is the first wave of an overall effort to undermine comparable worth," union organizer Robert Haaland charged in a letter to the Board of Supervisors. "We ask you to join with progressives to defend the principle of equal pay for women and minorities."

SEIU held an Aug. 7 forum to discuss the cuts at SF General, with Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, Eric Mar, and Ross Mirkarimi in attendance. CNAs and unit clerks packed the audience — a crowd that was indeed made up of many women of color.

One was Theresa Rutherford, a CNA at Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center. "We’re the first ones to note when a patient is not doing well," Rutherford explained to the supervisors. "It’s a job that requires a lot of commitment." She described the long hours and the bonds that develop with patients, saying CNAs are counted on by "the person who has no family members left — so you become the family member."

"Best-quality care costs," Rutherford added. "It’s not cheap."

Avalos, who chairs the Budget and Finance Committee, said he was infuriated by the pay cuts. He spoke about a possible supplemental appropriation to address the issue. "We have to find the revenue for that to happen," he said. "Push as hard as you can on City Hall, and I’ll fight as well."

Tom Jackson, there representing Sup. Chris Daly, also urged the workers to apply pressure. "As far as labor practices go, this is a test," he said. "You’ve been fighting for decades [for pay equity] … and they’re ready to wipe it away because we have a bad economy."

Department of Public Health Chief Financial Officer Gregg Sass responded to SEIU’s charges by telling the Guardian: "We disagree with the SEIU comparable worth argument. Further, SEIU was not able to get member approval of a tentative agreement that might have prevented layoffs and position conversions during last fiscal year."

Supervisors added $500,000 back into the final budget to stave off some conversions. SEIU members contend that the add-back was supposed to retroactively restore cuts to the 88 CNAs, but Sass told us, "I am not aware of any action at the [Board of Supervisors] to that effect."

A memo that DPH Director Mitch Katz sent to Board President David Chiu noted that "difficult decisions had to be made to reach the financial target," and said the CNA conversions were made "following discussions with the city’s Department of Human Resources and SEIU."

At the forum, Halaand pointed to a report from the Controller’s Office revealing a 20 percent growth in management positions under Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration. "There’s a lot of padding of their wallets at the top. At the bottom, they’re devaluing," he told the workers. "There seems to be money out there, but it’s just not for us."

Campos told us he plans to request a hearing to examine managerial promotions as well as the ethnic and gender makeup of the city’s highest-ranking positions. As for whether some of these cuts might be restored, he told us, "I think that’s a real possibility. I am hopeful it will happen."

A study released this year by San Francisco’s Department on the Status of Women compares women’s median salaries to average men’s earnings. According to the report, the median annual wage for Latina women is 52 percent of men’s earnings; African American women earn 58 percent; Asian women 63 percent; and white women 88 percent.

Another round of pink slips go out Sept. 16, so SEIU is planning a rally at City Hall that day to demand that the city uphold comparable worth.