Low-wage workers rally for recognition

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Today, as workers assemble at sites around the city to protest companies that are turning high profits while paying low wages, Leslie Poston will be with them in spirit.

However, instead of protesting about low wages, she will be working for them.

Ms. Poston, 49, of Wilkinsburg is a medical secretary on a heart and lung transplant floor and one of UPMC's 42,900 employees. The medical center had $351 million in operating income in its last fiscal year.

Ms. Poston, who makes $10.50 an hour, owes her employer for medical care she has received.

Like many low-wage workers, Ms. Poston tries to work as much overtime as she can. When she comes home after a shift, she said she picks up the mail and now knows not to immediately open the envelopes from UPMC because her medical bills are more than she can pay.

All over the region, there are thousands of workers who are putting in as many hours as they can, while falling behind in their bills.

Hannah Williams, 21, of East Liberty works two jobs. She is a paid $7.25 an hour, which is minimum wage, to work for human services agency Focus on Renewal in McKees Rocks, where she does clerical work. She also works on the agency's social media Web presence, often well into the night. But she said she only gets paid for the time she is in the office. On weekends, she works for $10.50 an hour as a certified nursing assistant, a job she trained for at Community College of Allegheny County.

Working more than 50 hours a week, and commuting three hours every day, means she is not seeing her 4-year-old daughter as much as she feels she should. Her daughter is usually in the care of her grandparents.

Ms. Williams wishes she had more -- both in terms of time and money -- to spend on her daughter, but every event seems to set her back. Recently, when her daughter had a high fever, Ms. Williams' own mother took the little girl to the hospital. While the girl has recovered physically, Ms. Williams is still suffering financially.

The protests that will be held today Downtown at a McDonald's restaurant, at Target in East Liberty, and at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland will be to call for employers to pay higher wages to workers. Today was chosen for the protest because it is the fourth anniversary of the last time the federal minimum wage increased.

One of the groups sponsoring the protest is Service Employees International Union, which is trying to organize workers at UPMC so they can bargain for better wages.

SEIU's Local 32BJ, which represents the building janitors Downtown, ran the "Janitors for Justice" campaign that started in Pittsburgh in 1985. Now, 28 years later, the 800 building cleaners who work in unionized jobs in Downtown offices make $15.37 an hour, or more than twice minimum wage.

Sam Williamson, the Western Pennsylvania staff director for Local 32BJ, said before the janitors were represented by the union, they made minimum wage.

Michelle Grier, 50, of Point Breeze, who used to work at a call center but is now a unionized janitor, said the wage is enough that she was able to repair the roof on her home. Before she had the union job, she said "when it rained outside, it rained inside."

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Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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