Workers, patients confront UPMC execs at board meeting | TribLIVE.com
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Workers, patients confront UPMC execs at board meeting

Natasha Lindstrom
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Jeffrey A. Romoff, President and Chief Executive Officer of UPMC, announces UPMC’s plan for a $2 billion expansion at UPMC Shadyside’s Heberman Conference Center on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017.

Demanding attention from UPMC executives and blasting CEO Jeffrey Romoff’s recent $2.4 million pay raise, several hundred union supporters and workers rallied outside UPMC Montefiore hospital in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood Tuesday afternoon.

Joined by Democratic elected officials, patients and faith-based leaders, protesters chanted in the name of worker rights and held up signs with sayings such as, “Raise the wage,” “Respect our rights” and “We work, we sweat, why are we in so much debt?”

Shortly before 1 p.m., they marched toward the hospital’s main entrance and administrative offices, in hopes of voicing their concerns during an annual public meeting of the board that oversees UPMC Shadyside Presbyterian hospital.

The rally — organized by labor groups such as the SEIU and Pittsburgh United and promoted by presidential candidate Bernie Sanders — targeted not only worker issues but also called for holding UPMC officials accountable at a broader level for behaving like a nonprofit charitable organization. They also want, for instance, for UPMC to drop a controversial prepay rule and negotiate an agreement that will protect access to UPMC for Highmark-insured Medicare Advantage and cancer patients set to go out of network on June 30.

“If they have hearts and a conscience, then the impact will be great,” said Beth McCracken, a woman battling a rare ear cancer who lives in Pittsburgh’s Brookline neighborhood, one of several rally participants who made it inside the packed meeting and spoke to the board. “But if they continue in their passive servitude to Jeffrey Romoff, then we will have no impact, because, apparently, he is the king.”

By their body language as she and others from the public spoke, with some board members shaking their heads and texting on their phones, McCracken said she fears UPMC executives think of the protesters as “a bunch of mosquitoes buzzing around that need to be squashed.”

“We need a new board of directors, because I think that if we had a different group of people making the decisions with the community’s interest rather than their personal interests, then we’d be in a much better place,” said Anna Nelson, an assistant to the director of a UPMC neuroscience lab in Oakland who wants to unionize so workers have a greater say in the nonprofit’s decion making.

17 workers go on 1-day strike

As of 4 p.m., a total of 17 of 40,000 Pittsburgh hospital-based workers did not report for work during the rally advertised as a one-day strike, UPMC spokeswoman Susan Manko said.

At a similar union-organized protest that involved hundreds of participants outside UPMC’s U.S. Steel Tower this past fall, 44 workers participated in a one-day walkout.

UPMC officials argue that the small turnout relative to total employees demonstrated that a majority of workers do not want to unionize.

“The SEIU has tried unsuccessfully for over seven years to organize UPMC service workers,” John Galley, UPMC senior vice president and chief human resources officer, said in a statement. “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.”

Executives tout UPMC’s pledge three years ago to become one of the state’s first major employers to raise all starting pay to a minimum of $15 an hour, above minimum wage. 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.

Megan Hitchens, 24, who recently started a job as a kitchen cook at the cafeteria at UPMC Montefiore hospital, left work midday Tuesday not knowing about the rally or why people were at the hospital protesting.

She said, personally, she’s quite pleased with her wages and benefits. She makes more than $17 an hour, and her health benefits are cheaper for her and her infant daughter at UPMC than she had at her previous job, she said.

“I enjoy working here,” she said. “Personally, I do not see any issues.”

‘Don’t put profit over people’

Union advocates argue that many UPMC workers, particularly those who are lowest paid, are fearful to attend pro-union or anti-UPMC events.

Two UPMC nurses, Katrina Rectenwald and Bobbi Ozanick, said they are among the few groups of UPMC workers who do have the support of a union, which gives them more of a voice and say in everything from wages to work schedules and patient-to-nurse ratios. They say that many colleagues did not show for the rally out of fear of losing their jobs or other repercussions at work.

Dozens were denied entry to the board meeting by UPMC and security officials, who said the room was “at capacity.”

A couple hundred people remained outside the hospital’s main entrance. Some went inside the hospital lobby to watch a live video stream of the meeting and its speakers.

McCracken said she spotted empty seats and chairs stacked up and that those inside were told nobody else wanted to come in.

Several elected officials, mostly Democrats, spoke during the rally outside.

“We’re standing with you to have an open, public dialogue about what’s going on with this company,” Pittsburgh District 5 Councilman Corey O’Connor told the crowd. “Please thank the workers that decided to take a day off today and strike with you.”

State Rep. Ed Gainey slammed the proposed canceling of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a paid day off for UPMC employees.

“That is wrong. It’s the wrong message to send the world. We’re better than this,” Gainey said during a passionate speech outside the meeting.

UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps said that “UPMC has not canceled our observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.”

“In honor of Dr. King, we are considering other ways to honor him and his legacy of service beyond our current activities,” which could include a floating holiday or paid day of voluntary community service, Kreps said.

’They could do the right thing’

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.

Organization-wide, 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.

UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff made $8.54 million in 2017-18 — a raise of $2.4 million from the previous year.

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.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman spoke confidently at the rally about the ability for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro to win a legal battle against UPMC, with a critical dispute now being mulled by the state Supreme Court. A decision in regards to a May 16 hearing in Harrisburg could come at any time.

“In the meantime, they could do the right thing,” Fetterman said. “They shouldn’t have to be forced to do the right thing.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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