How does the dental hygiene profession stand up for sick pay, salary increases, and other job benefits?
BY Heidi Emmerling Muñoz, PhD
Picture this all-too-common scenario. Helen Hygienist wakes up achy with a cough and a sore throat. She realizes she's coming down with a cold or the flu. The problem is that if she calls in sick, not only does she fear her colleagues and patients will be disappointed, but if she doesn't work, she doesn't get paid. So, in spite of being ill, she goes to work so she can make her house payment, which is due next week, regardless of putting herself and others at medical risk.
Many dental practices are set up this way, putting employees in a position of having to make a major choice anytime they're sick. According to the 2014 RDH e-Village salary and benefits survey,1 less than half of dental hygienists are offered paid sick leave.
Some lucky dental hygienists won't have to make these difficult choices anymore. Although some isolated cities have instituted mandatory paid sick days, dental offices have generally been exempt due to not meeting the minimum number of employees - 30 is the magic number. However, some states are changing the rules. California’s new law mandates that all employees are now entitled to paid sick leave, regardless of the number of employees a business employs. According to the California Division of Labor's Healthy Workplaces/Healthy Families Act of 2014, "Paid sick leave accrues at the rate of one hour per every 30 hours worked, paid at the employee's regular wage rate. Accrual shall begin on the first day of employment or July 1, 2015, whichever is later."2 Hopefully more states will follow suit.
Despite this, the Independent Women's Forum published a survey, conducted and written by two men, stating in part that paid medical and family leave is unimportant to women.3 How did the researchers determine this? They asked participants to make "Sophie's Choice" decisions. For example, if I were asked to choose between a decent salary and longevity with no paid time off, and a job with poor salary and high turnover and paid time off, I believe I would choose the former. But that does not mean that sick pay is unimportant to me. Since dental hygiene is still a predominantly female profession, and this study claims to report what women want, this is cause for concern. It underscores the point that if dental hygienists don't claim what they want, others will speak for us, perhaps to our detriment.
The ADHA's unifying voice
So how do dental hygienists make their voice heard? The obvious answer is the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), which is the official organization. The ADHA conducts research, provides grants and scholarships, supplies and publishes information relevant to dental hygienists, offers discounts on continuing education, provides leadership and networking opportunities, advocates for our practice in the legislative arena at the state and national levels, and more.
Although some argue that because of low membership, ADHA is not representative of most dental hygienists, the ADHA is the closest thing the profession has to a unifying voice. Even nonmembers benefit from the work done by ADHA. Every practicing dental hygienist ought to be a member, and it is disappointing that more are not.
Folks who opt out of membership often cite the limitations ADHA provides to individuals. ADHA is not a union and is unable to negotiate salary increases, workplace stability, and benefits like family-friendly hours, a safe and fair workplace, a secure retirement, medical insurance, paid vacation and holidays, or to prevent wrongful termination, grant tenure, guarantee a secure retirement, and other union benefits.
The power of unions
According to the AFL-CIO, "On average, union workers' wages are 27% higher than their nonunion counterparts. Unionized workers are 60% more likely to have employer-provided pensions. More than 79% of union workers have jobs that provide health insurance benefits, but less than half of nonunion workers do."4
Some people, mostly employers, paint unions as evil. Nonunion workplaces deter employees from joining unions by citing high dues, thwarted communication because of third-party bargaining, seniority rather than merit-based salary increases, and threats. Too many people turn away from pursuing their own best interests because of anti-union fear tactics and bribes for not signing up. Managers receive special training to prevent unions from forming.
People have to remember that businesses do not spontaneously dole out benefits from the goodness of their hearts. It has taken the force of law to guarantee sick pay for the more than 60% of employees who have gone without in California and Connecticut. Unions, not employers, are the reason workers have paid overtime, a 40-hour work week, Family and Medical Leave Act, social security, minimum wage, child labor laws, OSHA, anti-discrimination laws, and more. Hygienists have spoken for years about unionizing the profession but have faced numerous obstacles.
Eleven years ago, Cathy Hester Seckman published the unlikely and inspiring story of unionized dental hygienists, "Local 3382 of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees."5 Seckman writes, "If you've ever felt overwhelmed and powerless as an employee, you're not alone. We've all been there. But here is a group of hygienists who have a rather unique working environment, and they're never alone. They're unionized. . . . Solidarity, job stability, peace of mind, openness, and security aren't words one hears a lot in our profession, but they recur over and over again with [these] hygienists." Their unique situation proves anything is possible when it comes to taking ownership of our professional lives.
This proves dental hygienists are anything but powerless. There are infinite possible work models out there, and Local 3382's model bears revisiting. I for one will never work in a nonunion shop again. Because of my ex-husband's UPS Local 533 benefits, I had medical, dental, and vision insurance, at least while we were married. Because of his union benefits, I had the security of knowing we would have at least one income, since I could not count on job stability in the dental field. Because of his union benefits, my children had medical, dental, and vision insurance after he and I divorced.
It took me leaving private practice dental hygiene and joining AFT Local 2279 to get paid sick days, holidays, vacation, a guaranteed salary with increases based on education and experience, personal leave, medical insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance, life insurance, retirement, and more. It is with gratitude I pay my monthly dues. It is with gratitude I serve as an AFT delegate.
Even though ADHA could not offer these tangible benefits, it was with gratitude I paid my dues and served to support the association that at least gives the profession a united voice and the hope of moving the profession forward. It is critical that all dental hygienists unite in order to achieve the salary and benefits we deserve. Presently, dental hygienists are a long way from that goal. Dental hygienists should make this their goal so the profession will not lose highly dedicated, intelligent, and skilled members just to have basic workers' rights.
Dental hygienists should make this their goal so that others do not claim to speak for us while we remain silent. As Seckman writes, "Historically, in any legislative dispute between dentists and hygienists, it's been clear that dental associations have more numbers, more resources, and more ability to influence legislative agencies. Affiliating with powerful groups like state teachers' unions may now give hygienists their first opportunity to play on a level field." RDH
Heidi Emmerling Muñoz, PhD, is a professor of English at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento, where she teaches all levels of writing. Dr. Muñoz is also a delegate to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union. Prior to her current position, Dr. Muñoz was a CODA site consultant with the ADA, interim director, professor of dental hygiene at Sacramento City College, and a private practice clinical dental hygienist for more than 20 years. She has written numerous articles and columns and is a frequent contributor to RDH. Dr. Muñoz can be reached at [email protected].