By Kathryn Lybarger
Marisol Ramirez is one of more than 80 full-time hospital valet drivers at UCLA Medical Center, most of whom are about to lose their jobs just months after reporting that the low-wage private contractor employing them was paying less than required by university policy.
These workers are now fighting to be hired directly by the university.
As the first — and often the last — point of contact with UCLA patients, Marisol takes pride in her work. She sees it all: expectant mothers, patients exhibiting signs of possible stroke or cardiac arrest, even car upholstery soaked with blood.
But low contractor wages mean she and her two children have to live with a relative and rely on food stamps and MediCal just to get by. Making matters worse, the university has allowed their employer to cut corners and turn off ventilation equipment meant to protect valet drivers from constant exposure to exhaust fumes, leaving several workers with respiratory conditions.
Sadly, as revealed in a scathing new state audit, UC’s use and abuse of low-wage contractors isn’t limited to UCLA.
It isn’t new, either.
In 2015, facing mounting criticism for replacing thousands of full-time UC jobs with low-wage contractors, UC announced that it was raising its system-wide minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2017. It promised annual audits to ensure contractor compliance, but left student workers (who will soon replace the UCLA valet drivers) exempt from the policy.
Before the ink was even dry on this announcement, it was reported that the U.S. Department of Labor was investigating a custodial contractor at UC Berkeley for a range of labor violations — including outright wage theft and paying workers under multiple names to avoid overtime rules.
At first, UC tried excusing the abuses by claiming that most of its contract workers were temporary or seasonal. They weren’t. UC Berkeley’s custodial contractors were tasked with cleaning and maintaining Memorial Stadium — a facility used year-round. Most had been doing this work for years, earning just a fraction of the wages and benefits afforded to UC employees performing the same jobs.
After a year-long campaign by the mostly immigrant workers — including a historic boycott by scheduled campus speakers — the university finally hired each of the workers directly.
The next year, a similar issue popped up at UC San Francisco Medical Center, where a group of mostly Chinese-immigrant custodial contractors saw their already low wages cut almost in half.
As was the case at Berkeley, these contractors had already been working full time at UCSF for many years, doing the same jobs as directly employed UC workers.
When they spoke up about the wage cuts, the university abruptly switched to a new contractor and most of the workers were let go. At the time, they were told that UC couldn’t employ them because they didn’t speak English well enough. As one of the fired contract workers put it: “UCSF was fine with my English when I was cleaning for them with low pay and no benefits.”
So, after a multi-year campaign that saw formal Public Employee Relations Board complaints, a resolution by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and a conflict of interest scandal involving UCSF hospital CEO Mark Laret, UC finally re-hired the former workers directly.
But the recent state audit and experience of UCLA’s hospital valet drivers shows that UC remains determined to outsource as many jobs as it can — needlessly displacing career employees, failing to perform basic oversight of its contractors, and penalizing those who speak up against low-wage employers who cheat workers.
Californians have every right to expect that our state’s premier public institution — an institution that professes values like equality and social justice — does right by its most vulnerable, low-wage workers.
But as Marisol, her colleagues and the California state auditor can now attest, the University of California isn’t even coming close. Instead, it is actively adding to the ranks of our state’s MediCal-reliant working poor.
Shame on all of us if we let another Labor Day pass without doing something about it.
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[Source]: Daily News