University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Workers Are on Strike for Incredibly Reasonable Demands

Some of the lowest-paid workers at UPMC, Pennsylvania’s largest private-sector employer, are on a one-day strike. Their demands — a living wage, safe staffing — are shocking only in how incredibly reasonable they are.

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Mercy hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Many of UPMC’s 92,000 workers are on strike today. (Crazypaco / Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the 92,000 people employed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) are on a one-day strike today, demanding a starting wage of $20 an hour, safe staffing, affordable health care without medical debt, and the right to form a union without interference.

It poses a dilemma for the health care giant that once claimed to have no employees. That argument was made when the City of Pittsburgh challenged the hospital system’s tax-exempt status nearly a decade ago; in response, UPMC insisted that its workers are actually employed by subsidiaries. (It didn’t take long for the city to find federal 990 tax forms filed under the name “UPMC Group” that listed more than 50,000 employees.) The legal maneuver faded from memory when Pittsburgh mayor and inveterate squish on workers’ rights Bill Peduto dropped the challenge, though with mayor-elect Ed Gainey vowing to take up the fight to revoke UPMC’s nonsensical nonprofit status, it may soon be back in the news.

In reality, UPMC is Pennsylvania’s largest private sector employer, and the people who are on strike are some of its lowest-paid workers. They are part of a years-long organizing effort with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare Pennsylvania, which also represents nurses at several facilities in the Allegheny Health Network (AHN), the area’s other hospital system.

The strikers include transporters, dietary workers, housekeepers, nurses, patient care technicians, medical assistants, pharmacy techs, surgical techs, valets, therapists, health unit coordinators, and administrative assistants. Despite working for a medical facility, they speak of drowning under medical debt and failing to make ends meet on UPMC’s low wages.

At a November 5 press conference outside of UPMC’s downtown headquarters, Julia Centofani, a pharmacy assistant at UPMC Children’s Hospital who is paid $15.45 an hour, recounted being hit with a $2,000 medical bill last year after her daughter was hospitalized. When she admitted to her daughter’s pediatrician that she was having trouble paying her bills, the doctor referred her to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which now sends her food on a regular basis.

“The fact that my employer would rather send me dry food . . . than pay me a livable wage is atrocious,” said Centofani.

“$20 an hour would be life-changing for me,” said CJ Patterson, a patient care technician at UPMC Presbyterian who still makes less than $18 an hour despite having been employed by UPMC for twenty-two years:

With a living wage, I could finally get out of debt for the medical care I’ve needed along the way. I could send my granddaughter to a great school and save up for her college. I could help my grandson, who’s a football player, afford the gear and programs he needs to succeed. I’m going on strike for them.

As University of Pittsburgh professor Jeffrey Shook explained at the press conference, $15 an hour is not a living wage. A wage study conducted by Shook found that 64 percent of UPMC employees have had trouble paying their rent, mortgage, or utility bills, and nearly 60 percent had outstanding medical debt or struggled to buy food or medicine.

“Our research shows people need $20 an hour to reduce the material and financial hardships experienced by many workers — which include poor health, undue stress, lack of mobility, and diminished chances for their children,” said Shook.

“We’ve spent day and night seeing the community through this pandemic, only to see signs on our way to work advertising jobs at Amazon or the coffee shop offering better wages when we’re putting our lives on the line every day to take care of our community members when they’re sick,” said Zarah Livingston, a patient care technician at UPMC Mercy hospital.

Not Enough

UPMC’s response to the pervasive anger and frustration among its workers was to announce that it will give them one-time bonuses of $500 ($500 pre-tax, that is, so more like $350) at the end of the month and raise starting wages to $15.75 beginning on January 1, 2022. As UPMC’s new CEO, Leslie C. Davis, wrote in a letter to workers, the increases are meant to show “appreciation of your commitment to our organization and the vital work you do.”

It’s not nearly enough. As Centofani said at the press conference, “Paying us a living wage of $20 an hour would mean $400 more in every single paycheck.” Indeed, friends who work at UPMC told me of coworkers laughing in their bosses’ faces upon receiving the news of the $500 bonus. One UPMC employee called the bonus “a slap in the face to all workers.”

As employers scramble to retain workers and hire new ones, many are turning to one-time bonuses rather than permanent raises, a means of keeping workers from locking in gains. But for health care workers especially, the bonuses are laughably, insultingly inadequate. UPMC workers, like their counterparts at health care facilities across the country, have been stressed to the breaking point since the pandemic began. Nurses at UPMC hospitals openly speak of walking out, and early retirement is on many workers’ minds. Nationwide, one in five health care workers have left the field of medicine during the pandemic.

The least that UPMC can do for the workers who enabled it to generate a record-high $1 billion in earnings last year is pay a living wage, address its short-staffing problem, and stop sending its own employees medical bills that it knows they cannot pay.

There is also the matter of UPMC’s union busting. SEIU has been organizing with these workers for years, but it has never filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for a formal union election. One reason for that is UPMC’s anti-union tactics.

The campaign to organize some 3,500 workers at two of UPMC’s biggest hospitals began in 2012, and before long, SEIU filed twenty-one unfair labor practice (ULP) complaints with the NLRB. The board has issued orders to UPMC regarding workers’ claims of unlawful intimidation, threats, and the removal of union literature from a break room at UPMC’s Presbyterian, Shadyside, Children’s, and Mercy hospitals. UPMC denies these allegations.

Today’s work stoppage is the fifth strike by these UPMC workers in as many years. The majority of workers are not yet publicly engaged in the organizing effort — some 700 of them signed a petition supporting the strike’s demands, which means that likely fewer than that number are on strike (lacking a formal union only multiplies the many challenges of organizing a work stoppage). But the demands are more than reasonable and can be easily met by UPMC. Gainey, the incoming mayor, was backed by SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania and is supporting the workers; he’s expected to speak at their rally today outside of UPMC headquarters. Siding with workers against the city’s largest private employer is a promising sign that the new mayor may take a more aggressive stance toward UPMC than his predecessor; the health care giant should take notice.

Workers across the country are fed up with risking their health and that of their families for employers who treat them as disposable. The public is on their side, too: One recent survey found that 74 percent of respondents approved of workers “going on strike in support of better wages, benefits, and working conditions.” That is certainly the case in Pittsburgh, a city that even now retains a memory of its heyday as a union town. If UPMC occupies a similar role in the city that the steel mills once did — it does, wielding its power to dictate terms to elected officials — it is time for more of its workers to have a union, and wages and benefits that don’t condemn them to poverty.