Citing cuts to benefits, including the elimination of free healthcare and cuts to overtime pay, coupled with the news of the compensation package offered to El Camino's incoming CEO, the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers plans to support a ballot initiative that, if passed, would limit the amount of money the hospital could pay its top administrators.
Speaking at a public meeting of the hospital's board of directors on Oct. 12, longtime El Camino employee and SEIU-UHW member Kary Lynch said he felt the hospital acted unfairly and unnecessarily when it eliminated its free healthcare option and reduced differential pay — which guarantees employees better wages for working irregular shifts — by 5 percent.
"This hospital is in good financial shape and expects a profit this year, and has no reasonable argument on why they are attempting to force us to pay for our healthcare as well as make other cuts to our benefits," said Lynch, who has worked as a psychiatric technician at El Camino for 33 years.
In an interview with the Voice Lynch said he and many of his colleagues have become progressively agitated with the hospital. "We've been asked to take cuts, which really rubs us the wrong way when, at the same time, the executives are getting pay raises."
In response to Lynch's criticism, hospital spokeswoman Judy Twitchell said that all El Camino employees — including administrators — have had to adjust to the same changes in benefits structure as Lynch and his colleagues have.
In an email to the Voice, Twitchell wrote: "The hospital applies its salary and benefit policies to all employees equally based on market data, the desire to attract and retain skilled employees and fiscal responsibility."
Twitchell said that when it comes to requiring contributions to healthcare premiums, the hospital takes the view that it is not asking much of its employees — that they contribute 10 percent to the lowest-tier coverage plan, which had previously been free — especially in light of rising healthcare costs across the country. "The plans have increased in cost for the hospital, and we are asking the employees now to help out with that increase," Twitchell said. "The hospital is asking SEIU-represented employees to contribute to the cost of health coverage on the same basis as other employees."
The hospital spokeswoman also observed that all SEIU-represented staff secured across-the-board wage increases from between 4 percent and 6 percent each year, for a total 19 percent increase over the past four years.
But Twitchell's logic is flawed, Lynch reasoned. Unlike administrators, who spend their days in offices, away from wards of patients, he and many of his colleagues in the SEIU are in constant contact with sick individuals and perform hazardous jobs, like administering intravenous medicines and cleaning up after sick patients. The risk for contracting serious diseases is much greater in these kinds of jobs.
Furthermore, Lynch said, the majority of employees in the SEIU aren't making as much money as nurses and certainly aren't making as much as the hospital's top executives and the CEO. The SEIU represents a wide range of employees at El Camino, including cafeteria and janitorial staff, nurse's assistants and dieticians.
For some high-paid nurses and certainly for top administrators, Lynch said, paying more for health insurance won't be that big of a deal, but for someone working in the kitchen, these changes in benefits structure could reduce annual income by more than $1,000.
"Our CEO — her healthcare costs the hospital the same amount of money that my healthcare does," Lynch said. "The healthcare costs the same, regardless of how much money you make."
Pointing to the series of "Occupy" protests cropping up around the country, Lynch said he believes the SEIU initiative will be widely supported by residents living within the El Camino Hospital District. "I think among the general public people are really upset that all these executives make such extravagant salaries," he said, noting that the hospital's newly appointed CEO, Tomi Ryba, makes $695,000 year — before generous bonus options. "That's more than the president of the United States makes."
Lynch said that by reducing his benefits and offering Ryba such a big salary, the hospital is actively participating in an "attack on the middle class," and he wants voters to hear about it.
When asked her opinion on the initiative, Ryba, who took over as CEO of the hospital at the beginning of October, said she believes her salary is "fair" and consistent with the market value of a comparable position at a comparable hospital. However, as far as the SEIU's plan to push for a ballot initiative to limit the pay of hospital administrators, she said: "They're certainly welcome to express their opinions about executive compensation."
Twitchell said the hospital is "vigilant" when it comes to determining what it should pay its executives. El Camino conducts market research before establishing policies that guide all decisions about executive compensation. These guidelines are reviewed and updated annually if necessary, and the board holds public meetings when executive compensation is discussed.
In December of 2010, the board of directors made adjustments to the charter of the hospital's executive compensation committee, which allow for a freeze or reduction in executive salaries "when financially prudent," a stipulation that had not been in the charter previously.
Whatever the outcome of the SEIU initiative, Lynch said he hopes that the effort will at least draw more attention to the hospital district, which he said is largely ignored by its constituents.
"I want voters to notice the hospital," he said.