UPMC workers looking to unionize plan to confront hospital board members | TribLIVE.com
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Natasha Lindstrom

The Carnegie Mellon University graduate hasn’t been working at UPMC all that long, but Anna Nelson is among the most vocal critics ready to confront a group of UPMC hospital board members this week with a spate of reasons why the nonprofit behemoth needs to take better care of its workers.

Nelson, 26, pivoted to the health care field after majoring in art and music, then spending several years doing sales, customer service and waiting tables while teaching art classes. Nelson took a job in July as an assistant to the director of a UPMC neuroscience research lab in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood.

Nelson likes the role, colleagues and manager, and generally enjoys working there.

“But the pay isn’t good enough to cover cost of living and medical debt, so I still teach profit art classes out of a library in East Liberty three times a week during the school year, and I waitress on weekends, for more than 60 hours a week. Soon, I’ll be working seven days a week,” said Nelson, who makes $14.50 per hour at UPMC.

What Nelson doesn’t like is what the lab assistant and worker advocates have described as a years-long push by UPMC to squash attempts to galvanize the institution’s tens of thousands of employees around the goal of unionizing. Their hope is to win the power to negotiate better wages and benefits packages. They also want to have a larger say, or at least ensure their voices are heard, when it comes to high-level decision making made by those at the helm of the multibillion-dollar nonprofit organization.

‘Force that takes down the giant’

On Tuesday afternoon, Nelson plans to join a few dozen UPMC workers — including food service, maintenance, housekeeping and nurses’ aides and patient technicians — on a one-day strike from work. They plan to protest at the board meeting of UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside and Western Psychiatric Institute being held at UPMC Montefiore hospital in Oakland.

In addition to calling for unionizing and workers’ rights, they plan to reiterate concerns about the broader community, including seniors and cancer patients affected by the looming split of UPMC and Highmark. Without court intervention, the split and ensuing prepay-in-full rule for out-of-network patients takes effect July 1.

They’ll be joined by union supporters, community and faith-based leaders and elected officials, including Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner and Democratic state Reps. Summer Lee and Ed Gainey.

“I’m going to try to make an emotional appeal. I want people who have the power to make these changes to start making them,” Nelson said. “It’s about building solidarity and coalitions. … People coming together from a lot of different angles is going to be the force that takes down the giant.”

UPMC flatly disputes any claims that its executives and supervisors have done any so-called “union-busting,” nor have they discouraged employees from discussing how much they make or the possibility of forming a union while at work.

They say that history has shown a majority of workers at UPMC don’t want a union.

“The SEIU has tried unsuccessfully for over seven years to organize UPMC service workers,” said John Galley, UPMC senior vice president and chief human resources officer. “Our employees have ignored these efforts because they realize that they are already a part of team that works in unison to provide the best care in the regions we serve.”

At a one-day strike organized by labor groups calling for similar goals this past fall, UPMC said that “only 44 of our 40,250 Pittsburgh-based employees participated.” Workers notified their superiors in advance, and there was no disruption to UPMC facilities, UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps said.

While it is unusual for non-union workers to go on strike, labor stoppages over unfair labor practices are a protected activity under the National Labor Relations Act, as is the right to share work-related concerns with coworkers on work property.

Employees say they feel silenced

Alexandria Cutler of Verona, a food service attendant for UPMC, says that in her view many employees are not participating in the protests because they are afraid to discuss their pay and support of unionizing for fear of repercussions from supervisors.

She says she’s not too disappointed with her wage, a little more than $15 an hour after merit-based raises in recent years, but claims to know people who’ve worked at the organization for decades making less than she does.

Union advocates argue that UPMC continues to violate workers’ rights to join collective bargaining.

An Aug. 6 decision by the National Labor Relations Board in Pittsburgh ordered UPMC to stop unlawful intimidation, threats and surveillance of workers and the removal of union literature from a break room. That order was issued against UPMC Presbyterian, Shadyside, Children’s and Mercy.

The SEIU argues that the health system “has yet to implement any remedies.”

Kreps said that is not true: “This matter is complete. Each UPMC hospital involved complied with the remedies issued by the administrative law judge who decided the case.”

The NLRB also in August ordered UPMC to rehire illegally fired workers at UPMC Presbyterian and Shadyside, pay them for lost time, stop anti-union practices and inform employees of their rights to form a union. Three workers were fired. That matter has been appealed by both the union and UPMC, Kreps said.

From $15/hour to $8.5M/year

UPMC — Pennsylvania’s largest employer outside government — touts that it became one of the first major organizations to voluntarily hike its starting pay above the minimum wage.

In 2016, UPMC pledged to increase pay for entry-level positions to a minimum of $15 per hour by 2021.

“This wage adjustment is a clear sign that UPMC hospitals are committed to being the employer of choice,” Galley said. “Motivated employees can literally start a career with UPMC, assume new and challenging roles and stay with us for decades.”

This year, the lowest wage at Pittsburgh hospitals starts at $13.65 an hour, with the average pay for service workers at around $15.09 an hour as of February 2018.

UPMC has “excellent benefits,” including not only health insurance but also education benefits, paid parental leave and retirement benefits that include a cash balance pension plan and a savings plan with a match by UPMC, Galley said. Those who make more contribute more toward medical benefits and out-of-pocket maximums than the lowest-paid workers.

“We offer exceptional entry level positions for the residents of our region and the nation,” Galley said. “Not everyone is afforded a college education and great work experiences prior to looking for opportunities with us. Fortunately, we can provide this great experience and provide assistance so that individuals who are motivated to learn and do more can further their careers with us and become technicians, professionals and even move into management levels. This happens all the time with UPMC and it is one of the many reasons that UPMC is the best place to work.”

As a nonprofit, UPMC must pump revenue back into services and fulfilling its mission, which can include the salaries of the people who run it.

Organizationwide, average pay is $32.74 an hour, or about $68,000 a year, Galley said.

About 10 percent, or nearly 8,000, of UPMC’s 80,000 employees make $100,000 or more, the latest IRS filings show.

At least two dozen UPMC executives and doctors made more than $2 million in 2017-18, the latest IRS filings show. About 10 percent, or nearly 8,000, of UPMC’s 80,000 employees make $100,000 or more.

UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff made $8.54 million — a raise of $2.4 million from the previous year.

“That’s more in one day than I make in a year,” said Nelson, who wants to see UPMC share its financial wealth by increasing compensation for lower-level employees. “I’m sure he didn’t put a year of work into one day.”

Nationwide, CEO pay has been flagged as an equity problem at nonprofit as well as for-profit companies, with the pay of all CEOs ballooning from about 75 times the average worker in the mid-1980s to more than 400 times today, federal data show.

At the nation’s largest for-profit health care companies, CEOs make an average of more than $25 million.

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