Catholic hospital chain pressed on low wages

CHICAGO (PAI) — Four years ago, Araceli Romero’s son Julio developed a serious infection. Romero, a laundress at Resurrection Medical Center in Chicago — flagship of one of the nation’s largest Catholic health care medical chains — had no health insurance. On what Resurrection paid, she couldn’t afford it.

First, Romero tried to get her teenage son private care by taking him to clinics, but the money soon ran out. Eventually, she had to turn to public programs. An illness that should have been cured in weeks instead afflicted Julio for three months.

Executives of Resurrection Health Care (RHC) hospitals pay themselves lavish salaries while housekeepers, laundry and food service workers earn meager wages that mire them in poverty and leave them unable to support their families, according to a new report released here Aug. 6 by AFSCME Council 31.

“Coming Up Short: Resurrection Health Care’s Distorted Pay Priorities,” says RHC, the second largest nonprofit hospital system in the Chicago metropolitan area, skews its pay structure so the compensation of its executives significantly exceeds national norms while the wages of patient-support staff fall far short of living wage standards in the area.

Workers are fighting back by trying to form a union with AFSCME Council 31. “The low wages paid to these Resurrection workers are shameful, particularly when contrasted with the salaries the company’s top executives pay themselves,” declared Roberta Lynch, Council 31 deputy director.

“These are the workers who mop the floors, change the bedpans and launder the sheets, and Resurrection would simply grind to a halt without them,” Lynch said. “Yet these workers cannot even afford medical care at the very hospital at which they work.”

Romero, the worker who couldn’t afford to properly care for her son, told a press conference that, after working 11 years in the hospital laundry, she earns only $9.60 an hour. She told how laundry workers stand all day untangling wet, heavy sheets and lifting them into large bins. She related how many of her co-workers have injured their shoulders, backs and wrists.

And while health care coverage costs one-sixth of a worker’s take-home pay, RHC’s CEO earned $1 million last year. The chain of 100 hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities earned, net, $5 billion over the last five years.

Resurrection’s poverty-level ways, compared with the lush pay of the nonprofit chain’s executives, are yet another reason that workers need the Employee Free Choice Act, Lynch and AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson told a press conference.

“These workers have faced unremitting hostility” from their employers in the Catholic hospital chain, Lynch said. “They’re a potent example of why labor law reform is so needed” in the United States.

Chavez-Thompson added that without unionization, the Resurrection workers “are faced with a stark choice: health care or food.”

The union is demanding that the hospital stop stonewalling and work out a process whereby workers can have their legitimate desire, to organize with AFSCME, recognized without management harassment, intimidation and violations of labor law.

AFSCME has tried to bring outside pressure on Resurrection as well, including petitions from religious leaders and contacts with the Catholic hierarchy. When the workers attempted to present a petition with 200 names on it, demanding higher wages, to the health care system’s board, their delegation — including “lifelong Catholic” Chavez-Thompson — were “unceremoniously escorted out,” she said.

And pro-worker Father Larry Dowling said Resurrection’s anti-union stand, low wages and resulting low quality of care “violate Catholic social teachings.”

National Labor Relations Board charges that the hospital illegally intimidated and interrogated a petition drive leader are putting additional pressure on the hospital. Lynch said the union has even contacted the IRS to ask about the hospital’s nonprofit status.

All of this is designed to help workers like Romero, who in the meantime has to struggle along on $9.60 an hour in this expensive city. “Four years ago, we had to move” to a cheaper home, though still in a middle-class Chicago neighborhood, she says. “The kids have to do without clothes and medicine. But the main issue is, they [Resurrection] need to look at us like we’re human beings, not workhorses.”

John Wojcik contributed to this story.