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Better tools, not obstacles, for middle-income workers

George Gresham | 7/7/2016, 12:44 p.m.
We don’t need to listen to pundits or polltakers to know times are tough for working people. Millions of full-time ...
George Gresham Contributed

We don’t need to listen to pundits or polltakers to know times are tough for working people. Millions of full-time workers live in poverty. That is why many of these columns have called for the raising of the wage floor to $15 an hour.

We’ve argued that the higher minimum is not only moral and just but also would help to put a break on rising inequality and the obscene upward distribution of wealth.

But it is not just low-wage workers who are feeling the pain of inequality. Middle-income workers also are being squeezed. For many the American dream has turned into a nightmare.

Globalization, technology and the destruction and marginalization of unions are major contributors to the widening income gap and loss of living-wage jobs. The path to the middle class (a term used to include middle-income members of the working class) is becoming a steeper uphill climb.

One of the things lengthening that climb is crushing student debt. That crisis began to intensify a generation ago, when private equity companies and Wall Street banks were permitted to provide student loans. Those institutions peddled loans that students sometimes couldn’t afford. They then collected fees from the government to hound students who had defaulted.

Today 42 million Americans owe $1.3 trillion in student debt to banks and bill collectors, reported James B. Steele and Lance Williams last month in a Center for Investigative Reporting article. Also contributing to the student debt crisis are for-profit institutions, which promise far more than they can deliver while fleecing students and increasing their debts. In short, the student loan industry became more of a cash cow for bankers and investors than a hand-up for students.

By contrast, some unions, such as1199SEIU, have created opportunities and career ladders to middle-income jobs that also contribute to the well-being of our communities. The 1199SEIU Training Fund offers several tuition-assistance programs for members who wish to pursue college degrees, diplomas and certificates in professional and technical health-care programs. I am a beneficiary. Through a college degree program financed entirely by our Union Training Fund, I was able to advance from a janitor to a radiology technologist. And I am just one of thousands who have been trained to meet the challenges of a rapidly evolving health-care system.

Among the professional and technical titles for which training is provided are respiratory therapy, imaging, pharmacy, laboratory, surgical technologist, substance abuse counseling, licensed practical nursing, paramedic and EMT, social work, dietitians and nutritionists and physicians’ assistants.

Workers who perform these tasks are essential to the quality care that our union has fought so hard for since its inception. These professionals are at the center of our health-care delivery system.

“We are the eyes of doctors,” said lab technologist Rhode Hailik. “We help them see what’s happening inside their patients’ bodies.”

Technologists such as Hailik discover the presence of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and they provide timely data that help determine the most effective treatment for each patient. A doctor’s decision to begin, adjust or discontinue a particular medication or course of treatment is determined by the findings of the technologist or technician. Accurate assessments also help to shorten inpatient and outpatient stay, lowering the overall cost.

Our union has a proud record of working with management to provide professional and technical workers with the education, training and tools necessary to provide quality patient care. We’ve lobbied together and have won higher standards, licensing and credentials. But in the recent period, that cooperation has been strained as a growing number of employers embrace a corporate model of governance.

Rather than provide the necessary tools to meet health care’s greater demands, some employers prefer to take shortcuts. For example, to keep pace with the most recent procedures and technology, technical workers must continue their education. But some of our employers are refusing to provide paid release for necessary continuing education. Others are balking at providing competitive salaries, even for hard-to-recruit clinical lab technologists. And others are compromising patient care by not hiring enough technologists. Short staffing is dangerous in any health-care setting. In the case of technologists, it can adversely affect turnaround time for time-sensitive test results.

We are advocates of patient-centered, not profit-centered, care. And that means providing caregivers with the necessary tools to deliver the best possible outcome for their patients. Standing up for health-care professionals means standing up for quality patient care.