San Francisco layoffs disproportionately hit women and minorities, workers assert


Certified nursing assistants and clerical workers protested inside City Hall. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

 As the city shrinks its payroll, sending layoff notices to certified nursing assistants and clerical staff, it is touching off accusations from organized labor that officials are discriminating against women and minority workers.

The city has budgeted for laying off 340 employees and downgrading job classifications for another 290, as indicated last July in a memo from Controller Ben Rosenfield.

But the pink slips are still being issued, so exact figures won’t be available until the end of the week. The actual number of layoffs could be less than has been budgeted, Supervisor John Avalos said.

Union members and critics are decrying the cuts, saying they are a step back for gender equity because the cuts disproportionately affect women and minorities, who hold most of the positions. The layoff notices were issued beginning over the weekend.

Mary Hao, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources, disputed the union’s claims. She said San Francisco leads the region in compensation for nursing assistants when compared with both private and public hospitals in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Sonoma and Santa Clara counties.

Public nursing and clerical workers brought copies of their pink slips to a City Hall protest this week in which they claimed discriminatory firings and demotions.
San Francisco pays its nursing assistants 36 percent more than the average hospital in the region, according to an August salary survey by the department.*

In response to the layoff notices, hundreds of clerks, certified nursing assistants and union members who are members of the labor union SEIU 1021 held a raucous rally at City Hall Tuesday. Singing “We shall overcome,” protesters pounded on the office door of Mayor Gavin Newsom, shouting “let us in!” The mayor had left City Hall through a side entrance an hour before the rally.

After staging a brief sit-in, union members marched across the building and interrupted the Board of Supervisors first meeting after the summer break with shouting and songs.

The union has known that the layoffs were a possibility since it reached an agreement over concessions with the mayor in May to help bridge San Francisco’s $438 million deficit.

SEIU workers agreed not to receive pay for 10 federal holidays over an 18-month period, saving the city $16 million. As part of this concession, the city agreed not to lay off any union members until after Nov. 16. The city is required to give 60 days’ notice when laying off an employee, so the layoff notices were issued beginning over the weekend.

Union organizers say Newsom promised, as part of the agreement, to find new revenue sources to prevent any further layoffs.

“The mayor isn’t honoring the deal,” said Robert Haaland, a political coordinator for the union. Haaland added the union had hoped that the Board of Supervisors would be able to find new revenue streams, which it did not.

Avalos has expressed his frustrations with the cuts, and he said his attempts to create new tax measures never had consensus on the board. Avalos said he would like to save the union’s jobs, but “the board doesn’t have the money before us.”

According to a recent report by the Department on the Status of Women, clerical positions are held predominantly — 65 percent — by females. In San Francisco, health care support workers are 78 percent women, and health care practitioners are 65 percent women, the report found.

Wage discrimination is still evident in San Francisco, particularly in women who make less money, the report concluded, which is fuel for critics who are angry that the layoffs are affecting mainly low-paying health care workers, who are predominantly women.

Union members also are angry at the process by which the city is downgrading certain employees. All of the pink slips are the same, but some employees will be “de-skilled.” This means the city will lay the employees off and then re-hire them for less money while they perform essentially the same work.

The “de-skilling” will result in a 20 percent pay reduction, according to Haaland. In mid-year cuts last year, 88 certified nursing assistants at San Francisco General Hospital were “de-skilled,” Haaland said.

For now, workers who are receiving pink slips are being left in limbo. It is still unclear which workers are being downsized and which workers are being “de-skilled.”

Carmen Rutherford, a certified nursing assistant at Laguna Honda Hospital for 13 years, received a pink slip Monday.

Rutherford said she has no idea if she will be re-hired for less pay or if she will just lose her job. She said the hospital cannot run without its certified nursing assistants.

“They are telling us what we do can be done for cheaper,” Rutherford said. “What we will be doing is the same job.”

While Newsom’s staff did not answer requests for comment, they have told labor organizers that layoffs are necessary in a tight fiscal year, and that many of the clerical responsibilities can be performed by computers at cheaper cost to the city..
Asked about that assertion, Rutherford, the nursing assistant said: “It is an insult.” 

Certified nursing assistants and clerical workers were a part of classifications identified in the 1986 “comparable worth” legislation, said to Maria Blanco, executive director of the Earl Warren Institute at University of California at Berkeley. The ballot measure, Proposition H, sought to ensure that city jobs held primarily by women provided equivalent pay to those jobs traditionally held by men with similar qualifications.

“They are targeting those positions at the heart of the comparable worth debate. It is unraveling the legislation,” Blanco said. Nursing assistants and clericals received pay raises from 1987 to 1999 as a policy effort to end pay discrimination.

Emily Murase, executive director of the Department on the Status of Women, said it is too early to tell exactly how the cuts will impact women employees.*

“It’s difficult, because we don’t know who is going to leave the city,” Murase said. “We have our suspicions as to who is being laid off, but we won’t know for certain for a few couple of months.”

Murase and Haaland have requested the Department of Human Resources analyze how the layoffs will affect women and minorities. The department is being “receptive,” but it will take months, Murase said.

Public nursing and clerical workers brought copies of their pink slips to a City Hall protest this week in which they claimed discriminatory firings and demotions. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

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CORRECTED 9/18/09: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to compensation rates for San Francisco nursing assistants. The 36 percent premium refers to total compensation, not just retirement. Also, Murase's first name is corrected.