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UPMC workers demand right to unionize in single-day strike

“For 2 years we protected you,” read a shield-shaped sign. “Now protect us.” On Thursday, dozens of UPMC workers walked off the job. Strikers gathered at UPMC headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh demanding unionization rights, higher wages, and better health insurance. They held hand-written messages that included “Pay us what we’re worth” and “I work hard. I want to be able to take my kids on vacation.”

Despite a drop in employment rates in Allegheny County by 14.6 percent during the pandemic, UPMC kept its head well above water. The company grossed $23.1 billion in 2020, its highest revenue in history. Not a cent of that revenue was taxed since UPMC is a nonprofit. During his mayoral campaign, Ed Gainey promised to attempt to make the company pay “their fair share” to the city. .

UPMC is the largest non-governmental employer in Pennsylvania, yet workers have been frustrated by unlivable wages and poor health benefits. KDKA reported that strikers demanded “a minimum wage of $20 an hour, more affordable health care and the elimination of all their medical debt from their own employer.” Organizers claimed over 700 employees signed a petition outlining these objectives. Like 89 percent of wage and salary workers in the U.S., UPMC employees are not represented by a union. SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania has unsuccessfully attempted unionization since 2011.

Earlier this month, UPMC announced that it would raise entry-level wages to $15.75 — a five percent increase — and administer a $500 Thanksgiving bonus. Three days later, workers organized a news conference where they announced plans to strike. Speakers described the increase as “dirty money” and “a slap in the face to all workers.”

“Any raise that is less than the rate of inflation is actually a pay cut,” said Summer Viscusi, a student behavioral associate at Western Psych.

TRIBLive reported that “employees who participated in the rally provided at least 10 days notice so that their absence would not disrupt services for patients” and that five similar single-day strikes have occurred in recent years.

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman stood with workers. “There’s nothing outrageous or outlandish about these demands,” he said on Thursday. “The money [UPMC] spend[s] on advertising alone could raise their [employees’] wages. Advertise all you want, but treat your employees right, too.” Fetterman served as the Mayor of Braddock from 2005 to 2019 and announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate in February.

Staffing shortages predating and exacerbated by the pandemic were a central focus of Thursday’s protest, according to 90.5 WESA. Some employees have been expected to assume two or more jobs’ worth of work without reflective pay.

“We can’t afford to live in the communities we helped build,” UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh pharmacy tech Julia Centofani said at the Nov. 5 news conference. “UPMC has all but admitted to knowing that employees have problems making ends meet. Going as far as recommending me to the food bank.”

After her daughter was admitted to the UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh for a two-night stay, Centofani’s meager healthcare coverage left her in a precarious financial position. “Do you know what it’s like to get a call from the Pittsburgh Community Food Bank saying your employer recommended you?”

For many workers, it seems the answer may be yes: roughly two-thirds of UPMC employees struggle to pay rent, according to University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work Professor Dr. Jeffrey Shook.

“It’s shameful that my coworkers and I have been pushed into medical debt while working for the largest medical provider in the state,” said administrative assistant Nila Payton.

Rachel Dittmer, a service worker at UPMC Shadyside, said her insurance was cut while she was six months into chemo treatment. Tinisha Brockman, a patient care technician at UPMC Presbyterian, could not afford her inhaler last month. “People say we’re ‘essential,’” she said at the strike, “but I think UPMC treats us like we’re expendable.”