When MetroHealth in 2017 launched a $946 million campus transformation project in Cleveland, the second-poorest large city in the nation, construction firm owner Adrian Maldonado saw a big opportunity.
He and other Hispanic contractors arranged a meeting with MetroHealth CEO Dr. Akram Boutros, who proposed setting aside 5% of the work to Hispanic firms. But Boutros insisted they hire workers from the low-income, heavily minority neighborhoods around the hospital, on the city’s west side.
That was in line with MetroHealth’s goal of using the campus transformation to revitalize the surrounding community and improve overall health and well-being, including building affordable housing.
So Maldonado and his colleagues worked with the Spanish American Committee, a west side community organization, to start classes to train local Hispanic residents with little or no construction experience, preparing them for good-paying union jobs working on the new 11-story, 270-bed MetroHealth hospital.
Since last year, nearly 60 local residents have gone through the six-week evening program—qualifying them for federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration certification—and gotten jobs with construction contractors. They’ve earned more than a half-million dollars during that time. The goal is to get a total of 100 local Hispanics into the construction unions by next year.
One is Maritza Lopez, a 45-year-old single mother of four who had been employed as a low-wage security guard and had never worked construction before. Now she’s doing iron rebar work as a union apprentice on the MetroHealth site, earning $16 an hour plus good benefits, with the potential of making $24 an hour.
Lopez, who hardly fits the stereotype of the brawny construction worker, gave an inspirational talk to eight male students, in their 20s and 30s, at a recent training class at the Spanish American Committee's bare-bones storefront office.
She urged them to show up for every class and try to speak English, even if they think the words aren't coming out quite right.
“I’m very proud,” she said. “It’s hard work, and I strive to be better every day. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime work experience.”
Another former student, Gonzalo Sanchez, said he was running a small business and struggling trying to pay the bills for his family when he heard about the training program. Already in his early 50s, he hadn't been able to get union work despite having some construction experience. After completing the six-week program, he landed an apprentice job and is on his way to making $32 an hour with good benefits as a journeyman.
By contrast, the not-for-profit Center for Community Solutions this year reported that 39% of Cleveland’s residents and 50% of the city’s children are living in poverty.
"My bills are paid, I have a bank account, my health insurance covers treatment for my high blood pressure, and I feel secure," Sanchez told the students. "It's great. You have to take advantage of this."
Gus Hoyas, president of the Hispanic Contractors Association and one of the program’s organizers, was standing in the back listening proudly. He said the support of MetroHealth and Turner Construction, the project manager, helped enormously in opening union construction jobs to Hispanics.
“We’ve had a (hard) time getting these doors open,” he said. “None of this would have happened without the $1 billion MetroHealth investment. We owe Dr. Boutros a lot.”
Yvonka M. Hall, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, said the while all the hospitals in Cleveland could do more to improve overall community health and well-being, MetroHealth provides care for the poor and uninsured and offers nutrition, social work and other programs that are vital. She questions Cleveland Clinic’s commitment on issues such as preventing and treating cancer among black men.
“I’ve seen MetroHealth’s footprint in the community,” she said. “With Cleveland Clinic, when I see things they’re doing, it’s not community-based, it’s more corporate-based.”
Several program graduates already have started their own subcontracting businesses, potentially creating more job opportunities for area residents.
Maldonado, one of the MetroHealth project subcontractors, said the Hispanic Contractors Association still has to press the prime contractors to maintain their commitment to hiring Hispanic firms and workers. "We challenge them, and it's not friendly," he said.
Boutros acknowledged that helping 100 or 200 people find good-paying jobs won’t fix the national problem of stark socio-economic disparities that hurt population health outcomes.
But he tells the parable of the boy who saw hundreds of starfish stranded on the beach and tossed one back into the water. Told that was useless because there were so many dying, the boy replied that he had saved one starfish.
He wants to tackle the social determinants of health even if he and his organization can't fix the whole problem. "We may solve it for fewer people," he said. "But we’ll create a solution that others can adapt.”