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Friday, August 12, 2005 | Carmen Gamez takes home about $300 a week from her job as a housekeeper at Children’s Hospital San Diego. Employer-subsidized health insurance for her, her husband and her 14-year-old daughter costs $200 a month. That doesn’t leave much, she said, for all the additional costs of living. The Gamez family very seldom eats out, and even a trip to the movies is considered a real treat.

A report released Thursday by the Center on Policy Initiatives suggests that Gamez is not alone. It claims that a majority of the clerical, service and maintenance employees at Children’s Hospital earn below a self-sufficiency wage for San Diego. Further, it contends that the result of these low wages is a drain on taxpayers to the tune of nearly $700,000 per year as employees turn to state-funded health care programs. (Read the report here.)

The report comes at a politically sensitive time for the hospital as it enters into the last rounds of contract negotiations with the labor union SEIU. Tom Hanscom, a Children’s Hospital spokesman, cast doubt on the legitimacy of the study.

“The Center on Policy Initiatives has issued a report specifically toward Children’s Hospital at the same time that we are in negotiations with the service employees union,” he said. “It strikes me as suspicious.”

The report analyzes wages and benefits data provided by Children’s Hospital and survey data collected by the researchers from CPI, often with the help of the SEIU. It makes a number of conclusions, including:

– 53 percent of the clerical, service and maintenance employees earn below $13.20 an hour, which the CPI deems a self-sufficiency wage;

Hanscom said that wages at the hospital are comparable with industry standards.

“No one, including Children’s Hospital, would deny that San Diego is sometimes a difficult place to make ends meet,” he said. “But we feel strongly that we provide our workers with a fair wage.”

He said the hospital bases staff wages on the median wage paid for the same positions in other hospitals in the region. Regarding benefits, he said the hospital provides “the lion’s share” of health coverage to all part-time and full-time employees of the hospital. These benefits packages, he said, are set annually by a panel of volunteers who survey like employers around the region and ensure that Children’s Hospital is offering benefits that are comparable with other health care providers.

“That’s good business practice,” he said, “because we want to draw the best employees.”

How the benefits offered at Children’s Hospital measure up against other area hospitals was beyond the scope of this study, said report author David Karjanen. Steve Escoboza, president and CEO of the Hospital Association of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said it’s likely that the benefits offered by San Diego hospitals vary.

“Every hospital has a different culture and different needs,” he said.

Eileen Callahan, a spokeswoman for UCSD Medical Center, said that staff at that hospital benefit from a policy that covers all University of California staff. That policy, she said, is very inexpensive and staff contributions vary depending on salary.

“Some can pay as little as $3 per month for single enrollment and $10 per month for a family,” she said. “No one has come forward at UCSD to ask for assistance in medical coverage or to disenroll from medical.”

According to the CPI’s report, that’s certainly not the case at Children’s Hospital. The report concludes that “the low wages and unaffordable health insurance offered by CHSD forces many workers to rely on public assistance programs in order to make ends meet.” That reliance, the report claims, costs taxpayers $661,000 every year.

“We’re not trying to hammer Children’s Hospital,” Karjanen said. “In fact, we’ve not said that there’s anything bad about these practices. There’s no editorializing.”

Karjanen suggested that the figures illustrate an issue that should certainly be of concern to Children’s Hospital administrators. However, he recognized that the situation at the hospital is not unusual.

“It’s surprising to a lot of people that 7 percent of the employees at a big health care provider might be uninsured,” he said, “but if you look at other industries, say, construction, in San Diego County, you’ve got about 20 percent that are uninsured.”

Hanscom said that the hospital will be taking a close look at the report, and will be asking CPI to provide them with the data upon which the report’s conclusions are based. He said the hospital would love to have access to that data for its own purposes as it works to set wages and benefits packages.

Workers like Gamez, however, think that should have been done a long time ago.

Please contact Will Carless directly at

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