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By The Skanner News
Published: 01 April 2021

As a leader of color and a member of the BIPOC Caucus in the Oregon Legislature, I am encouraged to see many public and private institutions and businesses have publicly pledged to invest in antiracist policies and practices.

Earlier this month, major Catholic health systems announced their commitment to confront racism. Providence, one of the largest health systems in our country, pledged $50 million to address racial disparities in healthcare. I welcome this renewed energy and focus toward equity. But it is all of our jobs to scrutinize those in positions of power and assess who is genuinely committed to dismantling income and racial inequities.

The simplest way to see if an organization is living up to their values is to examine how they treat their own employees.

Unfortunately, Providence’s public commitment to racial equity does not match up with what’s happening inside their hospitals.

In Oregon, people of color are extremely underrepresented in hospital leadership positions, making up only 9 percent of management-level positions compared with 34 percent of service employees who are more likely to earn less and feel undervalued in their high risk jobs. Therefore, an obvious first step to address inequality would be to listen to the proposals made by frontline service workers, including those made at the bargaining table. Such proposals include: committing to a pay structure that mitigates managerial bias, developing a training system for lower-wage employees to attain certifications, paying employees a living wage, and providing benefits people can afford to use.

Providence Milwaukie Hospital (PMH) operates within miles of the 40th district where I was elected by the people to represent them. Every week, I hear stories of hardship from my constituents — PMH employees who work full-time yet struggle to support their families and can’t afford their own healthcare. These essential workers are medical and nursing assistants, ER technicians, phlebotomists, administrative staff and environmental services employees. They are individuals who largely go unnoticed and under-appreciated. And now, these frontline healthcare workers are asking PMH to negotiate on a fair contract that provides a living wage and safe staffing.

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Meanwhile, other health systems are stepping up with real investments in their workforce, acknowledging the undeniable link between income and health outcomes. Henry Ford Health system announced in fall of 2020 they would raise their minimum wage to $15 per hour for more than 3,000 front-line workers, at a cost of $6 million annually. Many others, including the Cleveland Clinic, Jefferson Health, Duke University Health System and Advocate Aurora Health, have also acted on the intersection of employee wages and equity by committing to a $15 per hour minimum wage.

Providence clearly articulated in their publicity materials that income has a direct impact on health disparities. They also know that many of their low-wage workers are struggling to get by, despite providing essential services during a deadly pandemic. Yet their workers are still fighting for a living wage and benefits they can afford to use.

By signing the pledge, Providence has acknowledged that “they are in a unique position to bring about overdue change to policies and practices that have allowed systemic racism and health disparities to continue.” I am now asking Providence and all health systems walk the talk: take responsibility for their organizational inequities and meet the demands of workers.

State Rep. Mark Meek represents Clackamas County in the Oregon Legislature.

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