California hospitals want to weaken anti-seismic protections

California hospitals have long sought to weaken legally required — and costly — seismic upgrades meant to ensure their doors can stay open for patients after a major earthquake.

Now the hospitals have an unexpected new ally – an influential union that is backing watered down seismic standards in a deal giving the employees it represents a pay rise.

The last-minute alliance has infuriated other unions, who have accused Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West of striking a backroom deal that circumvents the legislative process and endangers patients, healthcare workers health and communities. It remains unclear whether a lawmaker will draft a bill containing the proposal, which is being pushed into the final days of the legislative session that ends Aug. 31.

California Hospital Assn., which defends hospitals, did not return calls or emails seeking comment.

SEIU-UHW praised its own efforts to raise minimum wages for pandemic-weary healthcare workers, but did not respond to questions about its alliance with the hospital group. Before emerging as allies this week, the two groups had been locked in a bitter fight over wage measures in several cities in Los Angeles County.

“You’re playing with people’s lives with this deal,” said California Nurses Assn spokesman Chuck Idelson. “Our commitment is to public safety and not the exchange for a cash deal that primarily benefits one organization.”

Existing law requires that by 2030 every hospital be able to operate after the Big One. Hospitals estimate these upgrades will cost $100 billion, a tab they say will likely lead to statewide shutdowns.

During private negotiations at the state Capitol last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office backed the hospital association’s proposal to delay seismic upgrades, according to multiple sources involved in the talks who weren’t not allowed to speak at the time. On Thursday, Newsom’s office declined to comment on the latest proposal.

Last year, the attempt to strike a deal came at the same time as a 6.0 magnitude earthquake in northern California. After Democratic legislative leaders made it clear that any changes to seismic standards required union support, the proposal fell through.

This week, labor groups attacked both the hospital association’s latest attempt to overhaul seismic standards and the union lending its name to the efforts.

“The state’s building trades represent nearly half a million families statewide. We owe it to them and all Californians to keep the healthcare workers and hospitals that care for them safe,” said Erin Lehane, legislative director of the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

Almost all hospital buildings in the state met seismic standards under a 1994 law to ensure none collapsed during a major earthquake. The law was passed after the Northridge earthquake that year caused severe damage to hospitals.

Under the same law, a higher standard – that hospitals not only remain standing but are able to function after a major earthquake – had to be met by 2030.

Nearly three decades later, nearly two-thirds of California hospitals have yet to meet the 2030 requirements, according to the hospital association.

“It’s negligence on their part,” said Cathy Kennedy, registered nurse and president of the California Nurses Assn. “It was brought to their attention many years ago. They need to set priorities and invest in infrastructure. They can do it.

In a draft of the new proposal obtained by The Times, the California Hospital Assn. calls for a seven-year delay from the 2030 standards. In addition, the proposal would limit the standards to hospital buildings that provide emergency services and allow rural hospitals that are experiencing financial difficulties to obtain additional exemptions from the extended deadline .

Under the same proposal, the minimum wage for health care workers would be raised to between $19 and $24 an hour starting Jan. 1, with the highest wage going to workers in counties designated as urban or semi-urban. Wages would increase by $1 an hour in 2024, bringing the minimum hourly wage for some workers to $25.

Healthcare workers at dialysis clinics would also be eligible for the increases. SEIU-UHW is fighting a long-running battle with the deep-pocketed dialysis industry, with the union pushing for oversight measures that have been defeated at the ballot box. The union has another dialysis measure, Proposition 29, on the November ballot.

“Delaying hospital seismic upgrade requirements any longer is tantamount to failing to manage our forests and then watching in horror when Mother Nature strikes – and we have sadly seen how that has played out over the past few years,” said Jaycob Bytel. , spokesperson for the California Dialysis Board.

SEIU-UHW has championed minimum wage measures in Los Angeles, Long Beach and eight other LA County cities that would raise wages to $25 an hour. These measures, which the hospital association is fighting, apply to workers in private hospitals and dialysis clinics, as well as other health facilities linked to private hospitals.

In June, Los Angeles officials approved the wage hike, saying it was necessary to retain workers who felt devalued after enduring the COVID-19 pandemic. The LA measure covers a range of employees, including janitors, orderlies, security guards and office workers.

Hospital groups responded by launching a campaign to block the wage demand, collecting signatures to force the city council to repeal it or submit it to voters. No to measuring wage inequality in Los Angeles Campaign, a group funded by California Hospital Assn., said this month it had collected more than 88,000 signatures in support of the referendum effort.

LA city officials suspended the wage ordinance while they verify whether opponents have collected the required 40,717 valid signatures.

Hospitals are fighting similar measures in other cities in Los Angeles County, including Downey, where they have also filed signatures calling for a referendum. Local hospitals and their associations, including the California Hospital Assn., sued the city of LA over the wage ordinance, arguing that it arbitrarily awards higher wages based on where a person work. They also argued that the costs of rising wages could jeopardize some hospitals financially.

Times staff writers Taryn Luna and Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.

Los Angeles Times

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