What difference would a $25/hr wage make to health care workers?

Julie Light

Press Coverage

A bill in the California Legislature would raise the minimum wage in the health sector

Eneryck Santana, a medical assistant at San Ysidro Medical Center in Chula Vista California, recently made the 10-mile move across the U.S./Mexico border to live in Tijuana. He and his partner, also a medical assistant, could no longer afford their high San Diego-area rent. Despite being applauded for their essential role and dedication during the COVID pandemic, many low-wage health care workers, like Santana, struggle to make ends meet. A recent UC Berkeley Labor Center study looks at what a proposal before the California State Legislature to raise the health care minimum wage to $25 an hour would mean for workers, patients, and industry.

The study found that about half a million workers and their families would benefit financially from such a wage increase. The Labor Center found that most of the lowest-paid workers would get about a 30% wage increase. That would mean an average overall cost increase across different kinds of health facilities of about 3%. Established research shows patients, workers, and industry alike would benefit from lower turnover rates, better staffing, and better outcomes, like reduced hospital stays and even lower mortality rates.

“A $25 hr minimum wage would improve the health care setting for me and my colleagues and our loved ones,” said Santana. “We’d be less stressed, more relieved, and feel more hope and more valued.”

While the move to Mexico has reduced Santana’s rent by two-thirds, he has a longer commute and the wait to cross the border in his car, which can take hours, means he’s using more gas. Having grown up in Puerto Rico, he is adjusting to a different culture and dialect. As he adjusts to his new life, he doesn’t know when, or if, he’ll be able to afford to return to the U.S.

For many health workers who went into their professions out of a desire to help patients, the struggle to survive has them questioning how long they can hold out in the work they love.

Nathaly Rodriguez has worked for seven-and-a-half years as a lactation provider at Salud Para La Gente clinic in Watsonville, a farmworker community south of Santa Cruz. Most of her patients work in fields of the strawberry-growing town, and Rodriguez enjoys helping mothers and their babies get a good start. In addition to helping new moms breastfeed and take care of their infants, she often goes beyond her job description by helping with extra duties like referrals for assistance with food and rent, as do most of her coworkers at the short-staffed clinic.

“Medical assistants are in short supply,” says Rodriguez. “We used to have two medical assistants, but now we have one MA for three providers. It’s overwhelming and stressful for everyone,” she says referring to the extra workload she and the other providers take on.

Rodriguez hopes that a pay raise would attract more medical assistants to the profession and give providers like herself the support they need to perform their jobs.

Emmit Conklin, a phlebotomist at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, lives paycheck to paycheck. He spends more than 40% of his monthly $2800 take-home pay on rent for an apartment he shares with a roommate in central Los Angeles. If all goes well, he can make ends meet. But even a small unexpected expense means he will rack up credit card debt along with the $19,000 he owes in student loans.

He says a raise from his current $21.50-an-hour wage to $25 an hour would allow him to pay his bills and pay down his student loans.

“A few hundred extra dollars a month would make a huge difference. It would make the whole environment better to work in,“ said Conklin.

He makes the 45-minute commute to work in an unsafe, broken-down car that he cannot afford to repair.

“I can’t bring myself to pay thousands of dollars to get my car fixed,” he said. “Possibly, I can work up to driving a safe car.”

Conklin went into health care because he wanted a hands-on job helping people. He said short staffing and work stress during the pandemic made it difficult to fulfill that wish.

“I got into it to relieve people’s despair,” Conklin said of his decision to go into health care.”Pay is a means to make a decent living and take ownership and do a better job. The negative effects of short staffing and equipment shortages cascade down to patients.”

He describes the proposal to raise the health care minimum wage as “a very simple intervention; it can be an elegant way of bringing things back to how they should be.”

Senate Bill 525 (Durazo), which would increase the health care minimum, passed the Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee last month and is now in the Appropriations Committee.