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UPMC hearing raises concerns that Allegheny County may end up in labor dispute

| Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

Some Allegheny County Council members are raising concern that a hearing on Wednesday to discuss UPMC's tax-exempt properties might thrust council into a labor dispute between the hospital system and some of its workers.

More than 80 people signed up to speak at the meeting, which UPMC and Service Employees International Union representatives will attend. The union is trying to organize UPMC workers.

Council last month agreed “to allow the opportunity for public comment” about the tax-exempt status of UPMC property, according to the motion.

Since then, the SEIU has circulated fliers, describing the hearing as “a public hearing to investigate UPMC's treatment of workers and the community.” One part of a flyer claims UPMC has harassed workers who are trying to unionize.

UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said the hospital is educating workers about the benefits of employment without union intervention. He said hospital system representatives at the hearing would talk about its property tax exemption. Wood has said UPMC pays taxes on 49 percent of the 1,100 acres it owns in the county.

“We're looking forward to talking about why it's well-deserved, well-earned, and all the things we do for the community, which often go unrecognized,” said Wood, who noted that UPMC provided $565 million in free charity care and other community benefits during the 2011 fiscal year.

Councilwoman Heather Heidelbaugh, R-Mt. Lebanon, said council did not vote to hold a hearing about how UPMC treats workers or the unionization effort. An attorney who represents UPMC as outside counsel, Heidelbaugh said that's not driving her concern.

“In excess of 40,000 Allegheny County citizens rely upon UPMC for their job, to feed their families and to, in turn, pay taxes in Allegheny County,” Heidelbaugh said. Though some UPMC employees might have disagreements with their employer, she said, “County Council is not the venue for their grievance.”

Councilman John DeFazio, D-Shaler, will conduct the hearing. DeFazio works for the United Steelworkers of America as its District 10 director and is a member of the union's International Executive Board.

DeFazio said he plans to focus the meeting on the tax-exempt status of UPMC's properties, which he considers an important discussion. He said other nonprofits should be examined as well.

“I don't know what all the people are going to say. If they want to talk about UPMC, I'm going to let them talk,” DeFazio said.

SEIU spokeswoman Krysta Curl said UPMC needs to know how people feel about how it conducts business.

“It's a very broad picture of the whole situation,” Curl said. “When a community decides which organizations get these tax breaks, the organizations have to live up to the values of the community. There will be UPMC workers there and what they'll talk about, that's their experience.”

George Dougherty, a University of Pittsburgh public administration and policy expert, said it might not be wise for council to jump into a labor dispute, but it would be appropriate to examine a nonprofit's land holdings.

“Public hearings are mechanisms to engage citizens on matters public officials need guidance on. A labor dispute that the county is not party to would not be a good use of a public hearing,” Dougherty said. “It's not unreasonable to have reviews or audits of nonprofit properties and their charitable use.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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