Collective Bargaining and Eli Lilly and Co. and Insurance Benefits and Employee Benefits and Unions and SEIU and WellPoint and Health Insurance and Health Care & Life Sciences and Health Care & Insurance and Labor

Janitors want Lilly, WellPoint to push for better health benefits

April 14, 2008

Blanca Mejia works at Eli Lilly and Co. But she's struggling to make ends meet.

Mejia earns $8.25 an hour cleaning 30 offices in Lilly's corporate center, south of downtown. She's a single mother, supporting one daughter here and another back in her native El Salvador.

In February, Mejia learned she has diabetes. Now she's taking metformin pills twice a day and spending $30 more per week to buy fruits and vegetables to improve her diet.

The janitorial contractor that employs her, ABM Industries Inc., offers health insurance. But Mejia doesn't purchase it because she says the costs are high and the benefits are highly restrictive. Mejia wants Lilly to lean on ABM to raise wages and offer more affordable health coverage.

"If Lilly made them, then ABM would do it," said Mejia, 31. "People work really hard at these jobs, and they should be compensated for their efforts."

Mejia spoke through an interpreter, Ruairi Rhodes, who is an organizer for Service Employees International Union Local 3. The union is backing local janitors as they restart contract negotiations April 16 with five of the largest janitorial contractors in Indianapolis.

Those companies, which employ 1,500 janitors, began talks with the janitors in February. SEIU has been trying to organize janitors here since spring 2004, using publicity, rallies and even a 2007 strike at the Market Tower office building.

In a shift in tactics, SEIU now is taking direct aim at Lilly, health insurer WellPoint Inc. and even some local hospitals, hoping they will pressure the janitorial contractors to come to terms. The contractors involved in talks are France-based GSF, California-based Somers Buildings Maintenance Inc., Missouri-based Mitch Murch's Maintenance Management Co., Pennsylvania-based Bulldog Maintenance Co. and New York-based ABM. Officials from ABM did not respond to IBJ's questions.

SEIU began distributing pamphlets in March, which feature janitors who work at Lilly and the Indiana Orthopaedic Hospital. The pamphlets also include a form letter pre-addressed to John Lechleiter, the new CEO of Lilly.

"It's time for Indianapolis' profitable corporate giants--especially companies such as Eli Lilly and WellPoint, which make billions from the health care industry--to carry their fair share of our city's health care burden," the pamphlet states.

On April 3, SEIU staged a rally outside WellPoint's corporate headquarters on Monument Circle.

To be sure, SEIU organizers have sought better health care coverage since they launched their campaign in Indianapolis in 2004. But in the early years, the union placed heaviest emphasis on getting a "living wage" from janitorial contractors.

Now, after four years of spiraling health care and health insurance costs, SEIU is focusing on the burden placed on Indianapolis' hospitals and social programs by employers they say offer poor health insurance--or none at all.

"Janitors, like all working families, need living wages so they can have decent housing, adequate food, quality health care and full access to education for themselves and for their children. But janitors have also seen how the health care crisis is getting worse every year and how it is affecting just about every individual and business in town," wrote Rebecca Maran, an SEIU organizer, in an e-mail. SEIU is based in Washington, D.C.

Focusing on health care is a tactic used successfully by an SEIU advocacy group and others to get Arkansas-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to improve its health insurance coverage.

Lilly and WellPoint are two of five Indianapolis corporations that have agreed, in principle, to support higher wages and better benefits for the workers of the janitorial contractors they hire. Real estate companies Simon Property Group Inc., Duke Realty Corp. and Kite Realty Group are the others.

But now that contract negotiations have begun, Maran said, it's the "moment of truth."

Lilly released a statement, saying: "Although Lilly has no formal position on the unionization of the janitorial service workers and no direct role in any discussions with the SEIU, we do of course believe that fair wages and adequate health care coverage are important components of jobs and should be considered as part of any competitive market-based compensation package. As it relates to janitorial services at Lilly, we expect our vendors to have constructive working relationships with their employees, the community, and any relevant local or national organizations."

WellPoint officials did not provide a response to IBJ's questions.

One janitor who works at WellPoint said that if Indianapolis companies paid better wages and provided better health care, that might free some workers from having to toil at two or three jobs to make ends meet.

"People wouldn't be so tired all the time and would be able to spend more time with their families," said Sandra Luz Munoz, who cleans bathrooms at WellPoint's offices for GSF. She spoke in Spanish, with Maran translating into English.

Stacy Harris, 41, cleans laboratories at the Lilly Technology Center on Harding Street. Her employer, Mitch Murch's Maintenance, offers a health insurance plan Harris participates in. But Harris said the plan covers only care for hospital stays that last at least 24 hours.

In February, Harris got sick and was passing out at work. Her supervisor called an ambulance and she was taken to a hospital. But because she didn't stay overnight, her health insurance didn't cover the expense.

She relied on Health Advantage, a program of county-owned hospital Wishard Health Services, to cover most of the bill. Health Advantage is a managed care program providing medical care to low-income and uninsured residents of Indianapolis. Harris works 20 hours a week at Lilly earning $8 an hour. She said her husband does not have health insurance.

A call to Mitch Murch's headquarters was not returned. Harris thinks Lilly should require the company to do better.

"They make medicines that I can't even buy," Harris said. "And I'm cleaning the labs so that they can make all these medicines."

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