Cindy Cromie was a medical transcriptionist working for UPMC Hamot in Erie when she, like the rest of the 130 people who provided medical transcriptions for the hospital system, got a call this spring to come to a meeting in Pittsburgh.
They gathered in the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC, where they were told that their work was being outsourced to Nuance Communications of Burlington, Mass.
The new company would offer the transcriptionists all jobs, but after their first three months of work, they would no longer be hourly employees, according to those leading the meeting. Instead they would be paid at a rate of 8 cents a line for transcribing audio recordings or written charts dictated by doctors.
The transcriptionists were told that since they were all being placed in new jobs, they would not be eligible for unemployment nor would they be given severance pay.
When the presentation was done, the workers sat in silence for a short period.
"It took a while for it all to sink in," Ms. Cromie said.
The first paycheck at the piece-rate arrived this month, and medical transcriptionists who have experienced pay decreases of 60 percent plan to protest this morning in the plaza in front of the U.S. Steel Building where UPMC is headquartered.
The protest is being organized by Service Employees International Union, which is working to organize service employees at the hospital system. The transcriptionists are not part of that effort.
Ms. Cromie, 56, who had worked for UPMC for seven years and had been earning $16.58 an hour, saw her income drop from $1,012 for two weeks of work to $330 with Nuance. Her production by the new standards was so low that the new employer had to add $26.86 to her paycheck just to keep her at minimum wage.
Diana Borland, 47, of Cheswick worked for UPMC for 12 years and had been earning $17.29 an hour. "My dad taught me a valuable lesson: Always do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay," she said.
She had trained to be a medical transcriptionist after studying nursing at Community College of Allegheny County, Boyce Campus.
Her pay went down, too: from $1,171 for two weeks to $600 for the next two weeks.
"It seems to me that I am doing the same amount of work," she said. Under the Nuance system, Ms. Borland said she would have to be on the computer for 14 hours a day to return to her previous earning level.
Ann Joyal, a spokeswoman for Nuance, would not comment on how much the UPMC transcriptionists are earning or even how much the company pays at its average rate.
She said some people are very happy working for Nuance because it contracts with a large number of hospitals and hence has a steady volume of work.
Gloria Kreps, a spokeswoman for UPMC, said the move to outsource the transcription work was part of a shift to voice recognition technologies by the Pittsburgh-based hospital system.
"Since implementation of new voice recognition technologies, traditional transcription volume has declined steadily while transcriptionist productivity has increased, allowing UPMC to reduce transcriptionist staff through normal attrition," she said in a statement.
"This implementation would have eventually resulted in significant reductions in transcriptionists, beyond attrition.
"In an effort to provide a longer term employment opportunity for these staff, UPMC elected to outsource the transcription function to Nuance, which employs thousands of transcriptionists, and arranged for Nuance to offer employment to the UPMC transcriptionists."
Both Ms. Borland and Ms. Cromie have since resigned from Nuance, saying they could not make a living with the new company.
Ann Belser: email@example.com or 412-263-1699.