CP photo: Jason Phox
Local rapper and activist Jasiri X entertains the crowd of protesting UPMC workers on Nov. 18 in Downtown Pittsburgh
Workers at Pittsburgh’s health care giant, UPMC, have been fighting for higher wages, lower health insurance rates, and the right to unionization for years. And this resolve appeared to only get stronger during the pandemic, as health care workers became over taxed as the weight of the country fell on their shoulders.
On Nov. 2, UPMC officials appeared to respond to that as they announced slight wage increases. Entry salaries will rise to $15.75 an hour in January and $500 bonuses were given to every employee on Nov. 26.
However, hundreds of workers were not satisfied. Some called the increase a “slap in the face to all workers.” And on Nov. 18, UPMC workers from several hospitals in the area held a one-day strike, calling for higher wages, the right to unionization without interference, and other demands.
Scores of clinical staff, like surgery techs and certified nursing assistants, and non-clinical employees, including food service and transportation workers, walked out and gathered outside the U.S. Steel Tower in Downtown Pittsburgh, headquarters of UPMC. The workers demanded UPMC raise its minimum wage to $20 an hour, provide affordable high-quality health care to its employees, eliminate all medical debt for workers, and let workers unionize without any corporate interference.
Although the workers are not unionized, they are allowed to do a one-day strike, as labor actions are protected under federal law. Medical workers were required to give a 10-day notice, and they did on Nov. 5.
Many UPMC health workers explained at the rally how they struggle to make ends meet while UPMC keeps making more profits.
"We're overworked, underpaid and stressed out,” said Tosh Lindsay, a UPMC worker in environmental services. "UPMC doesn’t care."
During the rally, when workers tried to take a letter of their demands up to the UPMC offices, police were blocking the door, saying no one was at the desk to receive their letter.
At an earlier press conference announcing the one-day strike
, Julia Centofani, a pharmacy assistant at UPMC Children’s Hospital, spoke about how she was given a $2,000 medical bill last year after her daughter was hospitalized. When she admitted to her daughter’s pediatrician that she struggled to pay her bills on her $15.45 an hour wage, the UPMC doctor referred her to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which regularly sends her food.
“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.”
The one-day strike also brought out support from many Democratic politicians and elected officials, including Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Ed Gainey; Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman; Pittsburgh City Councilor Deb Gross; Allegheny County Councilors Bethany Hallam and Anita Prizio; and state Reps. Austin Davis, Summer Lee, Emily Kinkead, Dan Miller, Anita Kulik, Dan Deasy, and Jessica Benham; and Democratic candidate for Congress Jerry Dickinson.
Democratic candidate for 17th Congressional District Chris Deluzio
also attended the strike, and spoke in favor of the workers, saying that UPMC made $23 billion last year from the workers yet did not value them.
Lee, who is also running for Congress
, spoke at the strike outside UPMC corporate headquarters.
“I don’t know if you heard, but UPMC, our state’s largest employer, had a record. They made 23 billion dollars this year while our workers, our essential workers, could not afford to live in what we have been calling the most livable city in the country,” Lee said to the crowd of workers. “We need to send a message. We will stand with our workers. They deserve a union.”
According to a recent University of Pittsburgh study
, 64% of hospital workers have trouble paying their rent, mortgage or utility bills. Nearly 60% surveyed had medical debt or struggled to buy food or medicine.
Gainey, who will take office starting in January, posted on social media that he will be “uplifting the voices of UPMC workers who have shown up through all the pandemic challenges of the pandemic” and said these workers deserve what they asked of UPMC.