Fresno County clashes with SEIU over wages, insurance

SEIU Local 2015, Fresno County remain deadlocked over negotiations for wages and healthcare benefits for In-Home Supportive Services workers

(Darren Fraser)
(Darren Fraser)
Darren Fraser
Published February 23, 2024  • 
10:00 am

FRESNO COUNTY – The state’s largest labor union and Fresno County remain at loggerheads over wages and healthcare insurance for In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) workers, with neither side indicating it is willing to reach a compromise.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2015 represents more than 450,000 nursing home workers and home care providers across the state. SEIU represents 27,873 IHSS workers (Providers) in Fresno County specifically.

SEIU has been negotiating with the Fresno County Public Authority (FCPA) dating back from before last August over what the union says is a livable wage and adequate healthcare insurance. At present, Providers earn $16.60 an hour. The latest FCPA salary proposal increases the hourly rate to $17.80. But the caveat is the $1.20 per hour increase includes moving $.85 from the wage that currently pays for the Kaiser health plan in which 2,226, or 9%, of Providers are enrolled.

According to FCPA, 12,415 Providers are enrolled in Medi-Cal. The Authority did not provide details on if or what healthcare benefits the County’s remaining 7,894 Providers receive, though it did say these individuals may be covered under Covered California or other health insurance.

Christiopher Baiza is SEIU’s press contact. Baiza said FCPA’s proposal is tantamount to an either/or offer: accept the wage increase but lose healthcare coverage because the County would no longer offer the Kaiser plan, or remain at the current wage with coverage – which SEIU says keeps Providers at near poverty.

“It would mean the elimination of healthcare plans across the board,” he said. “That includes Kaiser plans. The poverty wage will push folks to stay on Medi-Cal.”

Medi-Cal is the state-sponsored healthcare plan. Individuals under age 65 must make $1,676 per month or less to qualify for the plan. Which means an individual who earns $17.80 per hour would earn, pre-tax, over $3,000 per month. Baiza said this puts Providers between a rock and a hard place.

“We have 2,200 Providers currently on the Kaiser plan,” he said. “If they remove Kaiser and they make 40 hours a week and don’t qualify for Medi-Cal, that’s it. Their income is going to go straight into looking for a doctor of their own.”

In a press release, FCPA said Providers who are currently receiving benefits through the Kaiser plan “can select the same plan and avoid any doctor and service changes if they qualify for health coverage through Medi-Cal or Covered California.”

NOT GETTING IT

Providers maintain the County in the guise of the Board undervalues their work and is callously cavalier by floating Medi-Cal as a healthcare option.

In a Feb. 20 press release, SEIU, addressing the Fresno County Board of Supervisors (Board), said, “Supervisors have even noted that many providers qualify for Medi-Cal – a tacit acknowledgement that the wages they offer caregivers are so low.”

At its Feb. 20 meeting, the Board heard from numerous Providers during the public comments section.

A woman who said her name was Brenda questioned why, of all the County contracts, was SEIU’s the only contract under the threat of losing healthcare?

“Is our work providing care and compassion to people with disabilities not important?,” she asked. Brenda, who is Black, suggested there may be more nefarious reasons behind the proposal.

“Then why must an industry made of women and women of color be the only contract that healthcare should be cut from and no raises given?,” she said. “These are the inequities I want you to answer for. For a Board who says they care about senior care, who says they care about racial equality, but we can’t agree on a contract?”

Another Provider, a 63-year-old male who has worked in the industry for 24 years, addressed the issue of unaffordability.

“I did my research. I make too much money to qualify for Medi-Cal or CalViva,” he said. “For me to get health insurance on my own, it would be around $1,300 a month. That’s over half of my income. Please do not take away my health insurance. What you guys are offering doesn’t cut it for me or my fellow healthcare providers.”

Sue Hammond said she has been an IHSS caregiver for two years in Fresno but has been providing care for 16 years. Hammond said many Providers do not earn enough money to work only one job.

“Eighty percent of caregivers in Fresno County work more than one job. Fifty-five percent of Providers are unable to get their medications,” Hammond said. “$20 an hour is not a lot to ask for in this day and age. Please do what is right for our IHSS people.”

Rodney Lewis has been an IHSS worker for over 35 years. Lewis said the Board did not understand what Providers go through because they have never worked in the field.

“You don’t know who we are because you have never walked in our shoes,” he said. “So, you want to take away my medical and won’t give me a raise? McDonald’s (workers) makes more than we do. I ain’t making nothing. I’m living at the poverty level. When I get finished paying my rent, I ain’t got nothing coming.”

According to SEIU, 80% of Fresno County Providers reported working multiple jobs. More than 42% of Providers reported experiencing food insecurity and having to rely on CalFresh and/or food banks at least monthly. Fifty-five percent of Providers reported having difficulty paying their mortgage or rent each month and over 50% said they were unable to afford prescription medication.

Baiza said Providers are not guaranteed 40-hour workweeks. He said social workers assign Providers consumers (clients). Typically, Providers work between 30 and 40 hours a week. Baiza said low pay and the prospect of losing healthcare has resulted in an exodus of Providers from the industry.

“The latest data show that one million authorized care hours were not used in Fresno County,” he said. “Even though Providers are getting 30, maybe 40 hours a week, a lot of consumers are left without care or finding care because so many folks are leaving the industry.” 

He added that recently, hospitals have experienced a crisis of too many patients because consumers who did not have Providers were relying on hospitals for treatment.

“What Providers do is keep consumers out of the hospital,” Baiza said. “They keep them in their homes and provide the essential care they need.”

Baiza said SEIU members will attend the next Board meeting and express their concerns.

“We’re going to hold actions each month leading up to our escalation in July. There is a bargaining session happening sometime in early March. That’s what I know,” he said. But he did not sound optimistic.

When asked if a supervisor or the Board as a whole has indicated a willingness to strike a compromise, Baiza replied, “Right now, there are not any real solutions on the table. They have not budged at all.”

Darren Fraser
Reporter