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Monday, Jul 27, 2009, 8:12 am

California Health Workers Approve New Contract, Secure Wage Increases

BY Rose Arrieta

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ALAMEDA COUNTY, CALIF.–After operating without a contract for more than a year, workers at “Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center”: in Alameda County in the Bay Area voted nearly unanimously to approve a new contract late last week.

The three-year contract, which takes effect on August 1, includes a $14 minimum wage for all workers and cost-of-living allowances of 3 percent during the contract’s first year (going down to 2 percent during the next two years).

Tiburcio Vasquez workers approved the contract by a 94-1 vote.

There were also wage adjustments “from 3-20 percent for recruitment and retention,” explained Norine Tan, one of the stewards and on the SEIU-United Health Workers bargaining team and an employee of Tiburcio Vasquez. “For example, some of the positions were not at the wage scale in comparison to other like positions of the market, so they were adjusted.”

The gains also include more pay for long-term employees, improvements on educational leave and a commitment to eventually pay more to those employees who are bilingual. Currently workers who also translate are not paid extra for that service.

Because Tiburcio Vazquez and its four clinics serve a large percentage of ethnically diverse clients—which include many immigrants—translations play an important role in their care.

“A high percentage don’t speak English as a first language,” said Pete Janhunen, of SEIU-UHW.

So both sides agreed to negotiate compensation for those workers who translate. No later than four months after the new agreement is ratified, a meeting with a mediator will take place to decide what standards will be used to determine how workers who also translate will be paid for their skills, Tan said.

Tiburcio Vazquez, founded in 1971, has clinics in San Lorenzo, Union City, Fremont and Hayward (all in California). They offer primary care, pediatrics, dental care and women’s services.

Tan, a nutritionist for the WIC program at the health center, said:

The bonding, teamwork and just coming together as one at the bargaining table was a good feeling. I was pretty mentally exhausted but it was worth the persistence—we’re happy we were able to come to an agreement and meet in the middle.

When workers held a candlelight vigil and a one-day strike last month (June 24) at two of the health centers in Hayward and Union City, “it made all the difference in terms of showing management that they [workers] were unified and willing to shut down the operation for at least a day to get their attention,” Janhunen said.

He added, “What they [workers] were asking for was realistic in that the CEO and board could afford it. They were not outlandish requests. From that moment the negotiations went really smoothly.”

The new contact remains in effect until 2012.

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Rose Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked in print, broadcast and radio, both mainstream and community oriented—including being a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets on social justice issues.

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