Contract negotiations are dragging into the sixth month for San Francisco veterinary workers who earlier this year attempted to set an industry standard by unionizing after their hospital was bought out by a multi-billion dollar corporation.
“This is not typically the industry that unionizes,” said Laura Territo, a veterinary technician with nearly two decades of experience in the field, who for the last four years has worked for the VCA San Francisco Veterinary Specialists at 18th and Alabama streets.
The hospital is the first private sector facility to form a union and that “has gotten this far,” said Territo, who is among the VCA’s some 80 employees who collectively took action in April to ensure their rights to fair wages, higher workplace safety standards and that proper training protocols are in place.
The VCA Inc. hospital was one of about 800 acquired by Mars Inc. — the manufacturer of M&M, Snickers and other popular sweets — for some $9 billion last September.
The union, named West Coast Pet Care Workers, includes veterinary technicians and all other support staff at the hospital who for years have worked for wages and in conditions that they say are no longer competitive or acceptable. The workers voted in April to be represented by the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
A VCA veterinary technician of 16 years who gave her name as Raven said that she currently makes some $28 per hour, while entry level workers with lesser qualifications are paid nearly as much at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals and elsewhere.
“For that to be the pay rate that I am receiving with the education that I have and the type of medicine I provide, and to know that someone is going down the street a year out of tech school or with just hands on training and is making $27 an hour, it’s a little bit difficult to swallow,” said Raven.
While some of the issues faced by the veterinary workers predated the Mars acquisition, Territo said the company is putting up a fight in current contract negotiations. An estimated 18 VCA employees, including several doctors, have left the San Francisco hospital in recent months.
“People can’t afford to wait it out to see if we are going to get our contracts,” Territo said.
Despite the array of services offered by the specialty pet hospital, Raven said that it cannot compete with even general practices who are paying more for entry level positions.
“We are underpaying, our benefits are lacking and that’s why we are not getting proper applicants,” Raven said. “We are supposed to be top of the tier and but are losing our well-trained technical staff.”
Along with VCA hospitals, Mars also owns other veterinary services business including Banfield Pet Hospital, Bluepearl and Pet Partners, as well as pet food brands such as Pedigree and Whiskas.
Along with more competitive wages, the workers are in the midst of negotiating safer workplace conditions and better training. Employees allege there are inadequate protections for them during x-rays and that there is no training protocol, leaving the few experienced and trained staff stretched too thin.
The workers have gained the support of Mission District supervisor Hillary Ronen, who attended one of their bargaining sessions. They have held two rallies so far to draw attention to their workplace issues, and plan to organize a third outside of the hospital on Dec. 5.
“Workers at SFVS are suffering from low wages and benefits that cause high-turnover — factors that can impact the quality care for patients,” Ronen said. “The Mars corporation that owns VCA and other pet care chains is extremely profitable and should be more respectful and responsive to workers and the community.”
Ronen said that she saw “some excellent presentations by employees” at the bargaining session she attended, but noted that no local management representatives were present.
“It seemed that the corporate representatives appeared to be using stall and delay tactics,” she said.
Requests for comment made to Mars representatives were not returned by press time, but Timothy Reid, VCA’s Regional Operations Director, said the company has engaged in “good faith efforts” to negotiate with the workers and has been “receptive to a number of safety and training proposals that largely mirror those currently in place or are in the process of being rolled out at other VCA hospitals.”
Reid said that VCA has invested in 500 scholarships to support its technicians and support staff in becoming credentialed, and “remains committed” to paying competitive wages.
“While economic provisions of a new contract are subjects of bargaining, negotiations are currently in their very early stages,” said Reid. “In entertaining any proposals that would increase the cost of services to the San Francisco community, or impact VCA’s ability to provide the best patient care and client experience for that matter, VCA is mindful that many clients struggle to afford high quality specialty pet care of the type offered at San Francisco Veterinary Specialists and have high expectations for how that care is delivered.”
But Territo and her unionized colleagues said that while the hospital’s specialized services are already costly, its employees see little of the return.
“Just because historically this is a low paying field doesn’t mean that this cannot change,” Territo said. “I think unionizing will help make the profession a little more professional by bringing it up a notch and holding these corporations responsible for taking care of the people that are taking care of them.”