Metro-east hospital workers rally for pay raises

News-DemocratAugust 29, 2013 

Protesters outside Touchette Regional Hospital in a plea for better pay.

BNDVIDEO

— Metro-east hospital employees joined the fast-food workers' movement Thursday to rally for higher wages.

More than 100 workers and supporters joined the public demonstration late Thursday morning on the sidewalk in front of Touchette Regional Hospital at 5900 Bond Ave. in Centreville just as thousands of fast-food workers in 60 cities across the nation walked off their jobs Thursday demanding $15 an hour. Fast-food workers had held another public demonstration in East St. Louis, St. Louis and other cities across the Midwest on July 30.

Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation in Sauget operates Touchette and other health centers across the region that serves mostly low-income residents. A representative from foundation could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The minimum wage in Illinois is $8.25 an hour. In Missouri, it is $7.35 an hour.

Some of the protesters wore black T-shirts that read: "Can't survive on $7.35." Other participants were chanting, "Hey! Hey! Touchette! Your employees need more pay!"

Misha Whitehead was one of them. She is a certified nursing assistant at the Centreville hospital and said 75 percent of her co-workers live off food stamps.

"We want better wages," Whitehead said. "We need more money to support our families."

O'Fallon resident Rhonda Meredith is a certified nursing assistant at St. Louis University Hospital, but came to the event to support fellow hospital employees in the metro-east.

"Everyone deserves good pay and insurance," Meredith said. "We need to bring our voices together and speak out."

The demonstration was organized by the Service Employees International Union, which represents many of the metro-east hospital's employees. SEIU representative Stephanie Haynes said many of these workers are living in poverty and hospital management needs to negotiate better and more fair wages and benefits for these workers.

"Most of the workers we represent here, they can't afford to buy the insurance where they work," Haynes said. "They can't afford that premium plan from their paycheck and still have milk and lunch money for their kids. That's pretty powerful and that's at the root of it."

According to the union, the nurses aides, admissions workers, cooks, food servers, housekeepers, phlebotomists and others who work at Touchette Regional Hospital rank 21st out of 23 for their pay among others providing the same service in the metropolitan area. The union believes the low wages contribute to the high rate of turnover at the hospital and low patient survey scores that negatively impacts Medicare and Medicaid payments to the hospital.

"We're not looking for huge raises," Haynes said. "Just something that is modest that can help and start bringing them out of poverty."

According to the union, Touchette Regional Hospital and Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation pay its executives "lavish salaries and offer generous wage increases while providing only meager compensation to rank and file employees."

The union reports that hospital Chief Executive Officer Larry McCully was paid $277,536 in fiscal year 2011, more than double what he earned in fiscal year 2007. The union also revealed that hospital medical Director James Probst earned $465,559 in fiscal year 2011. The union calculated that Probst makes $224 an hour -- 19 times more than the current fiscal year wage index average for Touchette Regional Hospital employees represented by the union.

Ron McCray is a material management tech at Touchette Regional Hospital, where he said he has not received in a raise in more than three years. The 35-year-old Belleville resident said he and others just want to be paid fair market value.

"And the cost of living has gone up every time each year and we've seen our executives' pay double, most of the time," McCray said. "They are paid competitively throughout the region and we're almost last in that same category, and we just need more pay for our households."

Whitehead said she has not had a raise in six years. The 29-year-old Washington Park resident said she and her co-workers deserve higher wages to support their families.

"We need something in our contract that guarantees that our wages go up every year with the cost of living," she said. "How else are we going to take care of our household and our families? How else are we going to afford that?"

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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