Nathaly Rodriguez is a lactation consultant in Watsonville and is tired of seeing her colleagues leave for better jobs and higher pay. People in our community need more services, she says. The answer is simple: higher wages. She advocates for the passage of state Senate Bill 525.
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Imagine taking your elderly parents to a clinic visit in a language they don’t speak. Or fighting for days to get an appointment for a child sick with asthma. Or struggling to find diapers, clothes and help learning how to breastfeed your newborn while working multiple jobs.
These are challenges Central Coast residents regularly face — made worse by a chronic shortage of trained health care workers.
I’m a lactation consultant in Watsonville and I see these problems every day. Workers like me in community clinics across the Central Coast provide vital preventative care to low-income working Californians. Without us, working families wind up seeking expensive care in emergency rooms — at taxpayer expense.
But chronic short-staffing, low wages, high stress and COVID-19 burnout are causing physicians, nurses, clinicians and health care workers to leave rural clinics in droves. Many are finding jobs that offer better benefits and reasonable workloads, while others are leaving the health care profession entirely.
I work at Salud Para La Gente in Watsonville, where I teach moms how to breastfeed babies. I also help families access support to keep their children healthy — which includes finding food and clothing and applying for Family and Medical Leave Act benefits. Salud began as a single free clinic in 1978 and has grown to a network of five federally qualified health centers and four school-based clinics serving more than 27,000 Central Coast patients.
Nearly all my patients are low-income workers. Many work on the farms that provide 1 out of 8 jobs in Santa Cruz County.
Most patients come to our clinic because our staff understands the languages they speak and shares their culture and life experiences. But many of my co-workers quit during the pandemic, seeking higher pay, lower stress and a better work-life balance.
Our clinic is just one example of a nationwide crisis in primary care that is hitting California especially hard. Our state already ranks near the bottom for availability of health care practitioners in the United States, with an average of just 21 professionals per 1,000 residents, according to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.
More than a third of California residents enrolled in Medi-Cal report difficulty and long waits accessing primary care, according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation/California Health Care Foundation. Here on the Central Coast, an estimated 518,000 people live in communities with a shortage of primary care providers. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, our country faced a looming shortage of more than 1 million doctors and nurses. But with 10,000 baby boomers joining Medicare every day and an epidemic of burnout and turnover in the health care profession in the wake of COVID, we also will need more than 3.2 million additional health care workers — medical assistants, home health aides, nursing assistants and support personnel — within five years to meet growing demand, according to Kaiser Permanente.
The “Great Resignation” —the movement of workers quitting their jobs in alarming numbers during the COVID era — is devastating the health care profession. In 2022 alone, nearly 1.7 million people quit health care jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Industry experts believe America has lost as many as 20% of its health care professionals and up to 30% of nurses. Anyone who goes to a doctor in Santa Cruz feels that shortage in the form of long waits and difficulty getting an appointment.
California must take aggressive action to avoid a community health care crisis. That’s why I and thousands of clinic workers in SEIU Community Clinic Workers United are urging California legislators to approve state Senate Bill 525, a bill that would guarantee a $25-an-hour minimum wage for California’s estimated 469,000 health care workers. That would be a 30% increase from the current wage of $15.50.
We can’t continue to provide basic preventative care for California residents if we can’t retain the front-line workers who deliver it. Too many workers like me are faced with the choice of taking care of our patients or providing for our families.
I have four children to feed. I make too much to qualify for public assistance, but too little to make ends meet every month. I could easily earn more at a private concierge service or by leaving health care entirely. The same is true of all my co-workers.
We remain because we care about the people we serve, but that’s not a long-term solution to California’s primary care crisis.
We need SB 525 and a statewide $25-an-hour minimum wage for health care workers.
Nathaly Rodriguez is a lactation provider at the Salud Para La Gente clinic Watsonville and a member of SEIU Local 521 and Community Clinic Workers United.