Workers at Moores Cancer Center in La Jolla say wage practices are affecting clinical trial operations

UC San Diego's Moores Cancer Center is the region's only comprehensive cancer center.
(UC San Diego)

A ‘culture of employee exploitation’ has led to high turnover among trial coordinators and hurt Moores’ ability to conduct trials and initiate new ones, some allege. The cancer center disputes pay disparity claims.


Workers at UC San Diego’s Moores Cancer Center in La Jolla say wage disparities are causing high turnover rates and low morale that have affected patients’ ability to enroll in clinical trials.

Members of University Professional and Technical Employees Local 9119, the union that represents more than 18,000 health care, research and education employees at University of California facilities statewide, issued a statement this week accusing Moores of employee “misclassification,” which it claims is central to a “culture of employee exploitation” at the region’s only comprehensive cancer center.

Citing the recent decision of Moores’ director, Dr. Joseph Califano III, to resign and return to research once his replacement is hired, and recent news reports about possible turmoil in the center’s clinical trials office, the union says the wage issues it cites must be fixed quickly.

UC San Diego Health says it is trying to increase the number of trials offered but denies a report that its designation as a comprehensive cancer center is in jeopardy.

June 11, 2023

Clinical research coordinators — who help patients with cancer enroll in clinical trials, comply with ongoing research protocols and conduct regulatory functions in the trials office — are the focus of the union’s wage statements.

The union alleges that Moores often is paying research coordinators according to wage scales designed for assistant coordinators, even though their employee badges indicate they have achieved more senior positions.

Alexis Oberg, a clinical research coordinator assistant at Moores for one year, said the wage structure has resulted in a high turnover rate, leaving about a quarter of the workers in those jobs with little on-the-job experience.

“The fact of the matter is that a clinical research coordinator can leave this job and go work as a clinical research assistant somewhere else and make ... $30,000 more a year,” Oberg said.

The university health system said in a statement that the union’s pay disparity claims were not borne out by a wage survey performed in 2022 at UPTE’s request.

“The review determined that the coordinators were performing duties consistent with their job descriptions,” the statement said. “Additionally, their salaries were determined to be equitable with the other 220-plus individuals within UC San Diego health sciences who are in these job codes.”

Moores said the titles that appear on employee badges are “working titles” that are “flexible” designations that “can vary from employee to employee or department to department.”

The center also noted in an email that the union has “pending contract negotiations.” The current contract expires in October 2024, the union said.

Oberg, however, said Moores is not necessarily competing with other universities or its internal divisions for trial coordinators. Most who leave, she said, go to work for drug companies.

“A lot of the time they are able to stay in San Diego and then just work remotely or travel occasionally,” Oberg said.

Moores acknowledged in its statement that “there has been turnover” among its trial coordinators, but it stated “the team has actually grown slightly” in 2023, with 74 employees currently filling such positions compared with 72 last year.

But Oberg said that “if you look at the numbers, the proportion of those people that started within the last three months is way more than it should be. It takes at least six months to really be fully trained on this job, so when you have a quarter of the department just started in the past six months, that’s a huge issue.”

Oberg said churn among trial coordinators is affecting patients in that, more than a year ago, several trials had to be temporarily closed to new enrollments because of understaffing.

Though that particular problem has not occurred recently, Oberg said she believes that Moores remains at risk of similar pauses in the future if the revolving door among trial coordinators is not closed by offering wages that are more competitive with the industry.

She said Moores also has sometimes struggled to start new trials due to lack of experienced staffing able to meet the expectations of sponsoring companies.

“I don’t recall the exact study that was involved, but we’ve had actually multiple studies where it took so long for us to activate the studies that by the time we activated them, the sponsor had closed enrollment,” Oberg said.

Asked to respond to the claim that turnover has hurt Moores’ ability to conduct trials and initiate new ones, a university representative referred to comments last month by Dr. John Carethers, vice chancellor for health sciences at UCSD.

Carethers said the university was already working to invest more heavily in the trials office and especially in the number of locally originated trials being offered.

“Our goal is to get those trials back up,” Carethers told the La Jolla Light on June 7. “We need to get our act together because clinical trials are an important part of not only our regions but it’s also an important part of how the NCI [National Cancer Institute] recognizes us as a comprehensive cancer center.”

Carethers said Califano will remain director of Moores’ Hanna and Mark Gleiberman Head and Neck Cancer Center and co-leader of the Structural and Functional Genomics Program. He also will retain his role as a UCSD professor and member of the Moores Cancer Center, Carethers said.

Califano, a La Jolla resident, said in an email last month that he is stepping down “so I can devote my time and efforts to care of patients with head and neck cancer, directing a laboratory focused on head and neck cancer research.”

— La Jolla Light staff contributed to this report.