Outsourced UC workers should be paid what they are owed

AFSCME union demonstrators at SAFSCME Union protesters at UC Santa Cruz. <(Photo: jacobbrown2397, via Shutterstock)

Just weeks before COVID 19 shut down California and the entire country, the University of California’s largest labor union ratified new contracts for nearly 30,000 of UC’s frontline service and health employees.

The biggest conflict during the multi-year negotiations had been over outsourcing UC jobs to private contractors who paid their workers lower wages and few benefits. UC was, after all, a public institution funded by California taxpayers. We argued that it shouldn’t be in the business of creating more poverty, more inequality, and a shadow workforce without a voice on the job.

The idea was to ensure that as UC grew, so too would good paying union job opportunities on UC campuses.

By late 2019, UC finally agreed to change. The Board of Regents enacted a new policy of “equal pay for equal work” that was also embedded in our collective bargaining agreement.

Under the policy, UC service contractors were supposed to pay workers performing jobs normally done by union represented UC employees the same as UC would (called “wage-benefit parity”). It also established criteria and a process for bringing long-term contract workers in-house as direct UC employees.  The idea was to ensure that as UC grew, so too would good paying union job opportunities on UC campuses.

Two and a half years later, UC says it’s informed more than 400 of its contract employers about its “equal pay” policy (which also applies to subcontractors), and has had most of them sign contract addendums “promising” to follow these new rules.  The problem is that this appears to be where enforcement of its “equal pay for equal work” policy ends.

As one UC representative recently remarked when asked if a vendor was actually complying with UC’s new contractor wage policy, “the University is not the employer of these individuals and does not have this information… (and) cannot confirm whether or not there are other payments made, or benefits provided, to these workers.”

If UC is unaware or un-interested in whether its service contractors are actually paying their workers the “wage benefit parity” required by its “Equal Pay for Equal Work” policy, there is nothing to protect these workers from experiencing the same mistreatment a California State Auditor’s report highlighted in 2017.

This report concluded that UC contract workers were being paid as much as $8.50 per hour less than comparable UC employees performing the same jobs at the same facilities—with almost certainly worse benefits.

To be clear, the affected workers are not AFSCME 3299 union members or even UC employees.  They are employed by private firms with annual service contracts as large as $150 million per year with the University of California—a public institution financed by billions of state tax dollars.  They are mostly low-wage food service workers, custodians, hospital technicians and nursing aides.   Mostly women and people of color, they perform the jobs that can’t be done remotely, and are the workers who can least afford losses in income from failure to enforce UC’s contractor wage standards.

Yet right now, there is scant evidence to suggest these workers are even aware of UC’s “equal pay for equal work,” policy and even less evidence to suggest their employers are actually following it.

SB 1364 (Durazo) would take a huge step forward in protecting these vulnerable UC workers, by requiring their employers to tell them about UC wage benefit parity rates, and to prove compliance by supplying payroll information to UC or a university labor-management committee. It would give these contract workers the ability to recover any lost wages from employers.

And while it would give UC’s service contract vendors time to correct wage policy violations, it would finally impose sanctions on those who choose to flout university policy.

On other types of contract work sanctioned by public institutions—such as construction–when a contractor pays a worker less than the market labor rate for the project, it is acknowledged as a civil crime against workers, taxpayers and honest businesses. That’s why California has passed laws that would hold bad actors accountable and allow workers and taxpayers to be made whole.

AB 1364 will ensure that similarly situated workers performing a variety of healthcare delivery, custodial, and other service functions at California’s premier public university will finally have access to similar protections.

And they should.

Editor’s Note: Kathryn Lybarger is the President of AFSCME Local 3299, which represents nearly 30,000 Service and Patient Care Technical workers at the University of California’s campuses, medical centers, and national research laboratories.

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