A small group of employees and those striking in solidarity gathered in front of the Janus offices. Photo by Lluvia Moreno

Amid the music, drumming and chanting, strikers gripped signs outside of Janus on 7th Street in Santa Cruz. Over 20 Janus employees and National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) members took to the street on Sept. 26 in Janus’s first ever official strike. Union members voted unanimously to hold the  strike. 

“We’re paid poverty wages which creates a lot of burnout, which directly affects our ability to be effective and present for the clients,” said Methadone Clinic Counselor Anthony Hong. “Many of us work multiple jobs so we’re stretched thin and stressed about month to month, like making rent and being able to pay our bills.” 

Janus is a nonprofit organization helping those living with addiction through multiple facilities and programs in both Santa Cruz and Watsonville. Janus employees joined the NUHW two years ago. The union has since represented about 80 Janus workers in contract negotiations. 

Janus presented what they called their “last, best and final” offer to CEO Rudy Escalante on July 1 after over a year of contract negotiations. Their offer would give employees a 1 percent wage increase in addition to a 2 percent raise implemented this past February. 

In an NUHW press release, former Janus employee Matt Van Nuys discussed his personal struggle with low wages. 

“I love Janus, but I couldn’t afford to stay full time at a job that paid so little that my family had to move into a trailer,” Van Nuys said in the press release. “It’s painful to see how many dedicated people have left because they couldn’t afford to keep living in Santa  Cruz.” 

About 60 percent of Janus workers left to pursue higher paying jobs in the past 18 months. 

“Clients come here seeking substance use treatment, looking for stability, and it’s really hard to get that when the people providing their care are changing constantly,” said NUHW organizer Justin  Palmer. 

Janus workers emphasized a primary reason for the strike was their patients’ well-being. Due to low wages, turnover rates for Janus staff are high. The fluctuation between resignations and new hires creates an unstable environment that’s detrimental to those struggling with addiction. Data from the California Department of Health Care Services show that the number of clients that completed treatment at Janus fell 29 percent from 2016 to 2018.

The cost of living in Santa Cruz has increased at least 2 percent annually since 2017, making a 1 percent pay raise inadequate to support basic needs in the city. The majority of Janus employees have degrees in their fields, yet they receive a starting rate of $13-$14 per hour, with few opportunities for wage  growth. 

Kathy Guzman has worked at Janus for 15 years as an addiction specialist in Watsonville. She had a starting wage of $15 per hour and now makes $25 per hour. Adjusting for inflation, she makes about $4.63 more than she did in 2004.

“When I walk into that door my problems stay there and I’m there for the patient,” Guzman said. “But they see [our problems] and they want to know if we’re okay too. They want to ask about our families but we’re here for [them].”

Santa Cruz has a living wage ordinance of $17 per hour for city employees to increase the health and welfare of citizens. However, since Janus is a nonprofit, it doesn’t abide by the living wage ordinance. Janus workers are paid a wage that doesn’t support their lives in one of the most expensive places to live in the  country.

The NUHW estimates that providing employees with a living wage and implementing benefits would cost Janus $350,000. The NUHW’s lead negotiator was unavailable for comment at time of press.

Janus executives and negotiators estimate that union demands would cost just under $500,000. This estimate includes increasing union members’ hourly wages to $16.21 and implementing benefits such as educational reimbursement and increased life  insurance. 

“We cannot commit to compensation increases that we don’t have,” said Janus CEO Rudy Escalante. “That would be fiscally irresponsible and unethical for us to do. We want to continue to work together and partner together in working through any and all  concerns.”

Due to its nonprofit status, Janus receives money from the city and is also eligible for federal funding. Last year, Janus employees tried to secure up to $500,000 in federal funds through Medicaid Administrative Activities (MAA). CEO Rudy Escalante did not pursue these reimbursements, citing the sensitivity of data collection and audit liability.

In order to receive MAA funding, employees would have to record their activities daily on both time surveys and time cards, which would then be evaluated by Santa Cruz County officials. If data from both documents don’t match up, Janus could be subject to federal audits — meaning any funds received could be revoked within a three year period. 

Without adequate funding, Janus employees won’t be able to make a living wage and, in turn, provide quality care for their patients.

“I used to be very proud to say that I worked for Janus and I no longer can say that,” Kathy Guzman said. “But I care about the patients. So I’m still here.”