Wednesday, November 18, 2009

UCI Medical Center: The Glass Ceiling

By: Sebastian A.R. Ontiveros and Emily Ma

Simultaneous clapping to the popular phrase “Si se puede” concludes the November monthly meeting for the team leaders of the UCI section of the ‘Local 3299’ faction of AFSCME. ‘Local 3299’ represents the UC wide system service employees, and stands for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. At this sectional meeting for UCI, happy faces are abundant in the room of twenty people. Salutations and smiles are exchanged between fellow members, but after a few laughs the mood transforms into a business atmosphere, and the seriousness of a person’s well being is consciously considered in the following discussions. “We’re dealing with a bully and if we don’t fight back they’re gonna get us hard,” says one team leader. “We cannot tolerate intimidation or other tactics to divert us from our goals,” says another. A real sense of David battling Goliath exudes through the second level conference room of the UCI Medical Center Library. The team leaders of each individual section are gathered to discuss current events circulating in their departments and ensure the fair treatment of their service employees; a union in every sense of the word.

AFSCME, was established in 1932, and represents diverse groups of workers, such as “nurses, corrections officers, child care providers, EMT’s, and sanitation workers” (AFSCME). Nationally, the union boasts 1.6 million members. Within AFSCME there are various “Local” branches. Local 3299 represent 20,000 workers at the ten UC campuses, and five medical centers. At UCI, Local 3299 speaks for 2,400 at both the campus and the medical center. All employees are unionized members, as a condition of employment, however it is up to the member to be active or non-active. Juan Castillo is the local lead organizer, and is assisted by two other organizers. There are about 30 departments represented, such as the Radiology Department, Operating Room Department and even a Food Service Department. Members meet with each department leader according to which department they are working in. Each department has a leader, which collectively makes up the “Member Action Team,” which meets every month to recap current events to relay back to their department. Raylene Machado holds not only the position of Radiology Department Leader, but also the title M.A.T. Captain. Although she works full time as a Radiology Technician, she also devotes time throughout the day sending E-mails to union members, talking to management, and spreading awareness at union information tables on campus. Yet, as Machado explains, not every member is as passionate and proactive as she is, “It’s really common that if employees speak up, management finds some way to retaliate.” Many times, such retaliation is being done under the radar— being the last dismissed during lunchtime or given overtime, but to union members, it seems as if their action is making a difference. “It shows they feel threatened.” Although Machado admits she has not been directly affected like the service workers have been affected, she says that many of the members do need to receive federal aid through food stamps. Yet, with the economic crisis, many forms of aid such as food stamps are being cut. “Where are these people gonna go?” Machado asks.

Initially, as news broke of the planned budget cuts for the UC system, service workers were notified by UCI School officials of their intentions to impose layoffs at their level. According to Juan Castillo, the lead organizer for the UCI division of Local 3299, the workers were notified in early August by mail. Immediately, Castillo and his counterparts started to organize against the act, bombarding officials with letters, E-mails, and phone calls to reconsider their decision, but were told that they would not negotiate. However, these actions extended the effective date of the layoffs to October, giving time to develop a plan. Subsequent to this small victory, Castillo and others went to the heart of the problem and organized a rally outside the home of Vice Chancellor Wendell Brase to put pressure on him. “There were about 200 people outside his house,” said Castillo. “The ironic thing here was although the office of the vice chancellor said that behavior like this would not get us anywhere, after we did that they wanted to meet with us.” The meeting consisted of Castillo, other organizers and workers, but was missing the Vice Chancellor himself. The Vice Chancellor's absence upset many including Castillo because according to Castillo, the union was initially informed that the Vice Chancellor would be present. Castillo made his discontent known and the authorities involved in the meeting said “We were getting too personal.” Castillo’s response was, “When you layoff 46 people and these people can’t pay their rent, can’t feed their kids, it is personal.” The result of that meeting: the original forty-six-worker layoff was reduced to only three. Castillo described this as a bittersweet victory. “Even though they minimize the number that doesn’t mean we are going to stop because there are still three workers that got laid off,” Castillo said. “Laying off three workers will not change the economical status of the budget crisis."

One of the unlucky workers to be laid off was Diego Rivera. At 23-years-old, he has been employed by the UCI Medical Center as a groundskeeper for eight years. Diego works 40-hours per week and sends money back home to support his parents and family in Mexico. “Lay-offs were chosen based on seniority.” Juan Castillo explains, “However since all workers were directly hired by UCI at the same time this was difficult to determine.” Four years ago, service workers were not employed directly by the UCI Medical Center, but through a contracting company, Commercial Landscaping Services. Under this contract, workers earned just $7.50 an hour. Actions taken on behalf of the union eventually allowed service workers to break their contract from CLS, demanding that they be hired directly by UCI, and thus were able to make $14.50 an hour, as well as receive health care benefits and retirement plans. As a result, many of the workers were technically hired at the same time. As diligent of a worker Rivera is, he lost his job due to unfortunate circumstances. After suffering a lateral ligament rupture while playing soccer, Rivera badly needed surgery, which meant that he needed time off from work to recover. This accident and injury were beyond his control, yet were what ultimately cost him his job. “I can’t make car payments. I can’t send money to my family,” Diego says solemnly through a translator. Even though the number of lay-offs has decreased from forty-six to three, the medical center still imposed a temporary layoff of 300 workers in order to compensate for their loss. “It’s a furlough by another other name” one union leader said.

The budget cuts that ultimately forced the three-person layoff still have had adverse affects on the remaining workers. Maria Aragon is a four year veteran at UCI Medical Center and according to her she already has to take on copious amounts of overtime just to pay her bills. And, with the reduction in staff she says that she already notices the increased amount of work due to the lack of staff. “We don’t have money to spend out, we don’t go to the movie theaters or Disneyland” Aragon said humbly. "We are just trying to make a living and get keep our house." Her biggest fear she divulges is that she does not want to have to borrow money from her kids to support herself. However, as she ages it will be harder and harder for her to keep working the forty plus hours of manual labor. Yet, even with Aragon’s personal hardships, she is considered one of the ‘lucky ones,’ there are others that would kill for her position, like Diego Rivera. In fact, in a curious change of events the remaining workers received a two-dollar raise in salary. However, the news was nearly simultaneous with an increase of the workers’ premiums for health care, canceling each other out. It seems like with each victory comes a setback, following that bittersweet theme. Wages have gone up, workers have been laid off, and just when things seemed to start to look up and workers’ jobs were re-instated, management found a way to circumvent furloughs and layoffs by imposing a temporary cut back in hours for 300 workers and even still a new issue is added to their plate with there health care. Despite all these setbacks, Aragon said this is the best job she has ever had. “I really like the atmosphere, and it has benefits,” she says. But is it right that anyone take advantage of that?

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