Health care workers struggle with cost of living in SF

Elizabeth Cronin, a patient-care assistant for more than 12 years at Sutter Health's California Pacific Medical Center, lives with her 19-year-old daughter in an Outer Mission studio apartment. They have no kitchen and they share a bed.

“It's not good, but it's all I can afford with my salary,” she says. “After taxes, I only get $2,400 a month. If I could afford a one-bedroom apartment, I would.”

Cronin is not alone. Thousands are struggling to keep up with San Francisco's soaring cost of living. And she is certainly not alone among Sutter-CPMC workers, many of whom have been forced out of The City. And many more will soon follow if their employer, Sutter Health, moves forward with plans to push more of the cost of employee health care onto workers.

Sutter-CPMC plans to nearly double the out-of-pocket maximum that workers pay for health care; double, triple, and even quadruple co-payments; mandate costly annual deductibles; and limit cost-of-living wage increases to 1.75 percent. These proposals add up to a significant pay cut for workers, whose annual health care costs would far exceed the proposed wage increase.

“If they push these cuts through, how much less am I going to make every month?” Cronin asks. “How much more will I have to pay for health care?” With a family history of hypertension and diabetes, health care is a constant concern.

Stories like Cronin's have prompted many Bay Area community groups to rally around Sutter-CPMC workers in recent weeks. Jobs With Justice, Mujeres Unidas, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Eviction-Free San Francisco, the San Francisco Central Labor Council, the California Nurses Association, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, Supervisor David Campos, San Franciscans for Healthcare, Housing, Jobs and Justice, and more than 20 others have presented their concerns to Sutter-CPMC officials and implored them to take these burdensome proposals off the table.

With people of color accounting for 89 percent of the CPMC workforce, Sutter's cuts will only accelerate the gentrification of San Francisco, which has seen people of color evicted from their homes at alarming rates. No-fault evictions (Ellis Act evictions) jumped 170 percent between 2010 and 2013.

Another Sutter-CPMC worker, a rehabilitation aide who didn't want her name published, left The City for Oakland two years ago because of the cost of living.

“Your entire paycheck goes to rent,” she says.

She couldn't find a two-bedroom apartment for she and her college student daughter in The City for less than $2,000. Though she found a two-bedroom in Oakland for $1,600, she is still rent-burdened, meaning she pays more than a third of her income for housing.

“In a couple of years, I'm going to have to evaluate whether or not I can afford to live in the Bay Area anymore,” she says.

A Sutter-CPMC housekeeping aide who also didn't want her name in print saved $300 a month by moving to Oakland from her native San Francisco, but she still spends half of her $2,000 monthly take-home pay on rent while also providing financial assistance to her aging mother.

“For one single person, it takes two checks to pay your rent,” she says. “What are you going to live on? What are you going to eat?”

Meanwhile, Sutter-CPMC executives, who make as much as 152 times that of their employees, have increased their salaries by as much as 133 percent since 2008. While workers scrape by with $2,000 a month, Sutter CEO Patrick Fry pockets $2,884 an hour. And Sutter-CPMC's 16.5 percent profit margin makes the hospital more profitable than Walmart and Starbucks.

How do they do it? How do they keep costs so low and profits so high? Just ask a Sutter-CPMC worker.

Sal Rosselli is president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents more than 10,000 workers throughout California, including 742 California Pacific Medical Center patient care assistants, housekeepers, food service workers, licensed vocational nurses, and other caregivers.

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