In 1995, Robert Jenkins walked a picket line in Columbia, SC as part of a nationwide strike of Teamsters at UPS.
“We shut down the whole nation,” he recalled with pride. “People didn’t realize how much these different people relied on UPS. You try to strike now, and see what would happen. They would have a fit.
“The Teamsters are the largest union in the nation,” Jenkins added. “They don’t back down.”
Jenkins works as a medical transporter, a job that entails pushing patients in hospital beds or wheelchairs, often with life-support equipment attached, down hallways or to discharge at Forsyth Medical Center. He told me that he previously worked for Novant Health, the not-for-profit operator of the hospital. His job was outsourced about a year ago, and he is now employed by Crothall Healthcare.
The pay of the outsourced workers was grandfathered in, but Jenkins said he and his fellow contract workers have fewer opportunities for raises than their counterparts who are still directly employed by Novant, which provides annual raises to adjust for market competition and cost of living. In comparison, the outsourced workers only receive raises based on performance, which might be nothing.
The workforce at Forsyth Medical Center, both those directly employed by Novant and those who work for its subcontractors, is non-union. But maybe it was Jenkins’ 16 years of experience as a Teamster at UPS that gave him the boldness and confidence to stand up in front of a group of 80 people at Lloyd Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem on a recent Tuesday afternoon and speak about workplace concerns.
“One of the first things I talked about was the cost of insurance at the company I work for,” he said. “We got housekeepers that work at the hospital that make $8 an hour. If you work for $8 an hour, and they’re taking $125 to $133 out of your paycheck, that’s almost 25 percent of your income. That means that the first 12 hours — that’s a day and two hours the next — you’re working just to pay your insurance.”
There were certified nursing assistants, housekeepers, transporters, food-service employees from Forsyth Medical Center at the gathering, along with teachers, a physician with an organization that advocates for universal healthcare and an organizer from the Raise Up campaign seeking to raise fast-food workers’ wages to $15 per hour.
Will Cox, an X-ray technologist employed by Novant at Forsyth Medical Center who helped organize the speak-out, said the healthcare workers are eager to forge alliances with the labor movement, but bringing a union into Forsyth Medical Center is not necessarily their aim.
“We will definitely accept help from individuals or organizations if it means better patient care and more rights in the workplace, but the Raise Up workers are an inspiration to us,” he added. “Lowest paid and most exploited does not mean powerless. By working together, we have a chance.”
A common thread in Cox and Jenkins’ criticism of their industry is that a preoccupation with cost-cutting, aggressive expansion and premium executive pay makes ostensibly nonprofit players like Novant more like their corporate peers that put profits before people.
“It’s funny how the CEO of Novant gave himself a 34 percent raise, but the people who did all the work didn’t get that,” Jenkins said. “If the Novant workers receive anything, it’s little or nothing. And we don’t get none of the raises.”
Novant Health President and CEO Carl Armato’s 2012 compensation package totaled $2.8 million, including $934,520 in base salary, $686,576 in incentive compensation and $1.1 million in deferred compensation for retirement and severance.
Armato’s pay is set by Novant’s board of directors, which includes community leaders such as Forsyth County Commissioner Dave Plyer. As a nonprofit, the healthcare company’s executive compensation must be considered “reasonable,” according to Novant’s website, and is established by through comparisons “to other similar health systems and organizations around the country that are comparable in size, complexity and reputation.”
A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in October 2013 found that Armato’s total compensation was above the national average.
Following a layoff of 289 employees in 2012, Novant announced a net income of $273 million in fiscal year 2013. As part of its obligations as a nonprofit, the company reports that it provided $566 million in community benefits, including $129 million in free, charity care to uninsured and indigent patients. Novant also invested $350 million in capital for construction and a new electronic records system. The healthcare company’s construction program included the opening of a new medical center in Clemmons with a 24/7 emergency department, operating suites and imaging and lab services.
“As we continue to operate in a challenging market, I am proud of Novant Health’s ability to remain nimble and control costs while keeping the focus on delivering the best care to our patients,” Armato said in the company’s most recent annual report. “Strong financial results are necessary for us to reinvest in our communities, facilities and employees. A strong organization ensures our future ability to provide needed services.”
That management philosophy doesn’t set well with Cox.
“Most of us go in there and we do the best we can with what we have,” he said. “We have very little security but also know that we’re expendable. Employees are seen as an obstacle to revenue. Patients are seen as an obstacle to revenue if you don’t have good insurance. If you’re a higher payer with good insurance, you’re the one they’re looking for, what they’re fishing for.”