UPMC workers announce upcoming strike to demand higher pay, better staffing levels | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

UPMC workers announce upcoming strike to demand higher pay, better staffing levels

click to enlarge Juilia Centofanti speaks at a press conference in Downtown Pittsburgh on Fri., Nov. 5, 2021. - CP PHOTO: RYAN DETO
CP Photo: Ryan Deto
Juilia Centofanti speaks at a press conference in Downtown Pittsburgh on Fri., Nov. 5, 2021.
A group of hospital workers at UPMC have announced their intention to take part in an upcoming strike if a list of demands are not met by the hospital giant. Flanked by advocates, religious members, and an elected official, the workers announced the strike at a press conference on Fri., Nov. 5, saying their demands are for a $20/hour minimum wage, affordable high-quality health care, elimination of all medical debt, and respect for union rights. If those are not met, organizers say there are potentially hundreds of workers who will go on strike in two weeks.

About 25 people gathered for the press conference in front of the Steel Tower in Downtown Pittsburgh, which also serves as headquarters to UPMC. Organizers say that the current plan is for a one-day strike on Thu., Nov. 18.

Juilia Centofanti, a pharmacy tech at UPMC Children, spoke at the press conference about how she could not afford medical bills in relation to her newborn daughter, even though she works for a hospital. She says UPMC sent her bills that they knew she could not pay. Centofanti said the conditions at UPMC are why the workers making their demands.

“We need a union,” said Centofanti.

More than 200 UPMC workers have already signed onto a petition supporting the demands, and organizers expect more to join after today’s announcement.

Workers at Pittsburgh's hospital giant point out that UPMC has seen record-breaking profits during the pandemic. And state Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-West View) said that working conditions for employees have gotten worse over that same time span. At the press conference, she said a recently announced bonus and small wage increase from UPMC is insufficient.

“UPMC could have recognized [their hard work] with hazard pay, but instead, they just got this pat on the back,” said Williams. “They are putting off going to doctors because they can’t afford it, even when they work for a hospital.”

On Nov. 2, UPMC announced it would be increasing its starting wage to $15.75 an hour starting on Jan. 1, 2022 at its urban hospitals. The hospital giant also announced bonuses and benefit increases. In a letter to staff, UPMC CEO Leslie C. Davis said the wage and benefit increases were meant to show “appreciation of your commitment to our organization and the vital work you do.”

However, Centofanti believes the organization of the workers' strike motivated the company to enact pay raises and bonuses. And she says in a press release that the “thank you pay” is not enough for the extra work that hospital employees have put in over the course of the pandemic.

“We worked for two years in the pandemic without a drop of extra pay. Paying us a living wage of $20/hour would mean $400 in every single paycheck,” Centofanti says in a press release. “You better believe I will cash this $500 check because we have already worked to make UPMC billions in profit. We’re owed this and so much more and I will continue organizing with my coworkers for the pay, safer staffing, and union rights we deserve.”

University of Pittsburgh professor Jeffrey Shook spoke at the press conference and cited a wage study he conducted for the university that showed that UPMC workers faced many cost burdens, even those making $15 an hour. He said 64% of UPMC workers faced housing hardships, 59% faced medical hardships, and 60% faced food insecurity.

Centofanti said that UPMC once recommended her to the Pittsburgh Food Bank.

“Everything you are hearing is extensively documented,” said Shook.

Additionally, the hospital industry at large has also been struggling with labor shortages, like most industries in the country. The issue is particularly stark in hospitals, as many in the industry have been suffering from burnout due to the high volume of patients caused by the pandemic and hospitals struggling in filling positions. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, UPMC has thousands of job openings across the Pittsburgh-based system’s 40 hospitals.

Zarah Livingston is a patient care tech at UPMC Mercy. She said that workers at Mercy are understaffed, which is leading to them to be overwhelmed, burnt out, and over-scheduled.

“When you are not staffed properly, that care is not where it should be,” said Livingston.

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