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UPMC Presby, Shadyside food pantry becomes dividing line

Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
UPMC Mercy hospital employees Danielle Kaib of Upper Saint Clair (left) an RN in quality management, Liz DiPietro of Carnegie (center) an RN in quality management and Kim Shetter of Mount Lebanon (right) an administrative assistant in cardiology all volunteer at the hospital's Together We Care Pantry, Uptown.

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Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
 

Employees at UPMC Mercy say they always have taken pride in their faith-based mission to help those in need, especially their own.

Just over a year ago, they started a food pantry to help fellow workers who fell on hard times, such as an illness or accident, a family emergency or the loss of a spouse's job.

“It's part of what we do,” said Danielle Kaib, a registered nurse in Mercy's quality department for more than 30 years. “We've lived the mission. We're here for one another.”

Some UPMC employees are criticizing the pantry, saying it wouldn't be needed if UPMC paid reasonable wages. Mercy employees say they are offended by the critics' rush to judgment.

“It's disgusting what people are saying,” said Rosa Esposito, who works at Mercy's information technology department. She and seven co-workers gathered in a conference room on Wednesday to express concern about those who they say are misconstruing the project's purpose. “It's amazing that they are twisting things around. This has nothing do to with people's wages.”

Leslie Poston, 48, of Wilkinsburg, a secretary at UPMC Presbyterian, became upset when her unit director showed her a flier promoting a food drive at the Oakland hospital. Workers at Presby and UPMC Shadyside started to collect food after hearing about Mercy's program.

Poston, who expressed concern about low wages and inadequate health benefits, believes Presby's food bank expansion was geared toward her because, she said, her manager told her, “Leslie, we've heard what you've been saying” about pay and other work conditions.

“It's a disgrace to me, demeaning to me, that I would come to where I work to pick up food and then my other co-workers see me,” said Poston, who makes $12.74 an hour. “UPMC doesn't get it. I would like to buy my own food. They're asking other employees to bring in food.”

Poston supports unionizing efforts by SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, which wants to represent nonclinical workers at some UPMC facilities. Krysta Curl, a SEIU spokeswoman, said the union has no position on the food pantry issue, but said it outraged “a lot of workers.”

“It's admirable that employees are helping each other, but why aren't the bosses doing something?” asked Teri Collins of Wilkinsburg, who makes just over $14 an hour after 31 years of employment as a former housekeeper and now unit secretary. “My concern is that we work for a $10 billion company, and our CEO makes millions. It's sad that we work for someone that big and people have to resort to a food bank to supplement their income.”

UPMC employs more than 55,000 people, making it Pittsburgh's largest employer. The average salary is $60,000 a year, according to the health system. The SEIU is looking to unionize drivers, maintenance and food service workers.

Will Cook, president of UPMC Mercy, said he takes offense to anyone who would criticize the good deeds of his employees, who are following the footsteps of the Sisters of Mercy, the Roman Catholic congregation that founded the hospital in 1848.

“This is an organization that has a set of values at its core — and that includes caring,” Cook said, emphasizing that employees created the pantry project.

A Mercy registered nurse who used the food pantry told the Trib she makes “very good money” but several years ago experienced health and personal problems that took her “beyond the breaking point.”

“Mercy lifted me up in ways that I can't talk about because I'll start crying,” she said. She asked not to be identified to protect her family's privacy. “It's not about the food. It's about the hope and the dignity and knowing that you're not in this alone.”

Staff writer Adam Smeltz contributed to this report. Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412 -320-7998 or lfabregas@tribweb.com.

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