Legacy Emanuel Workers Picket for Living Wage Increase

While Legacy CEO George Brown collects an estimated $1.8 million, Emanuel front-line workers in SEIU Local 49 say they rely on food stamps to make ends meet. One employee says she was sent to collections after she was unable to pay $1000s of dollars in hospital bills from her own employer.

Dozens of Legacy Emanuel employees and their supporters picketed outside the hospital Wednesday, hoping to boost worker morale while putting the heat on Legacy Health as the Service Employees International Union Local 49 bargains for a better contract for the powerful health system’s front-line workers.

The organizing unit, which includes certified nursing assistants, technicians, housekeepers and food service workers, has been without a contract since their last one expired June 30. 

Legacy Health has offered just a 1.5 percent raise each year of the contract for these workers, many of whom might see their take-home pay go down because the hospital wants to limit the ability for workers to receive overtime pay, according to Caitlin Doherty, a central sterile technician on the SEIU bargaining team. The union also takes issue with a move by management to eliminate certain seniority perqs for CNAs. 

Emergency room technician and single mom Julie Williams spoke out at the rally that despite working full-time for Emanuel, she is on food stamps and her children are insured through the Oregon Health Plan.

Another Emanuel employee, cafeteria cook Scarlet Allen, told The Lund Report that her own employer sent her to a collection agency after she suffered a heart attack in 2011 and was unable to pay her Emanuel hospital bills. She said Legacy reduced her bill from $65,000 but stuck her with $6,000 that she could little afford. “I’m paying on it,” Allen said.

Legacy’s stinginess with one of its own occurs despite the nonprofit hospital’s requirement that it pay a certain amount of its net income of $3.5 million to charity care. The state requires charity care because a nonprofit business like Legacy is able to avoid many federal and state taxes.

Meanwhile, Dr. George Brown  most recently received a 20 percent raise for his work as the health system’s chief executive officer. His total compensation, including bonuses and deferred pay, topped $1.8 million.

“There’s something wrong with that picture,” Williams said.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, whose district includes Emanuel, intended to speak at the rally, but got stuck in traffic on I-5 returning from Salem. SEIU Local 49 President Meg Niemi relayed a message that Kotek wants to be at the bargaining table when it meets again later this month, and said Kotek has spoken directly with Brown, asking him to extend a fair contract to employees.

A Kotek spokesman did not return a call for comment, and Legacy Health ignored a request for comment by press time. 

SEIU has countered with a contract offer that gives a 4.5 percent annual raise and requested that Legacy provide more experience-based step pay raises, since a majority of workers have been at Legacy so long that they’ve reached the top of their pay scale.

Certified nursing assistant Katie Milojevic told The Lund Report that the loss of seniority for CNAs would hurt a profession that has already been slighted by the hospital. A few years ago, all Emanuel CNAs were required to receive additional training to assist with electrocardiograms and catheters. The hospital paid for the training, but they received no bump in pay despite now having additional skills equivalent to a term at community college.

Most of the Legacy Health system is non-union and the nurses at Emanuel are not organized. SEIU has organized the lower-skill workers at Emanuel and Good Samaritan Hospital in northwest Portland.

Emanuel is among the most respected hospitals in the state and one of only two level 1 trauma hospitals in Oregon, together with Oregon Health & Science University. But its location in north Portland, which has a high concentration of people on the Oregon Health Plan or with no insurance at all, does put the hospital at a financial disadvantage compared to those in wealthier parts of the metro area.

Milojevic said Emanuel employees were paid less even than Legacy employees of the same skill level at other locations.

“There’s just such a level of frustration among workers,” said union representative Jesse Stemmler.

“We want a living wage increase, better than 1 percent,” Doherty said. “I hope we can go to the table and reach an agreement on the 22nd of July.”

Chris can be reached at [email protected].
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