Unions here focusing on UPMC's low wages, not pay at McDonald's

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Pittsburghers were eating Big Macs on Thursday even as McDonald's restaurants in other parts of the country were struck by workers demanding higher wages.

Local fast-food lovers have UPMC to thank for their ready access to fries.

There had been a protest that shut down the drive-through at the Strip District McDonald's on Saturday and another on Stanwix Street in July that marked the fourth anniversary of the last increase in the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour. Workers are asking that they be paid $15 an hour.

There were no labor strikes Thursday at local McDonald's because no union is actively trying to organize the fast-food workers here.

Fast-food workers staged walkouts in about 60 cities Thursday demanding higher wages. The strikes, which included walkouts in Detroit, Boston, Las Vegas and New York City, were against McDonald's Corp., Burger King Worldwide Inc., Wendy's, Subway and Yum Brands.

Local unionizing efforts have been focused instead on UPMC, which is a much bigger anchor that is pulling wages down in the region, said Kyndall Mason, a spokeswoman for the community group One Pittsburgh, the organization that organized the local McDonald's protests.

"UPMC is the largest low-wage employer in the region with half of their [service] employees earning less than $12 an hour. To move our economy forward we have to make sure that UPMC jobs are good jobs. We can't build an economy that works for middle class families if workers are making poverty wages," said Sam Williamson, assistant district director of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union.

"Fewer than 8 percent of our employees make less than $12 an hour. The average wage of UPMC workers is $30 an hour. And with benefits the wage of that $12 an hour worker jumps to more than $21 an hour. The benefits at McDonald's and many other employers in this region can't come close to matching ours," said Paul Wood, UPMC spokesman.

"Comparing UPMC to employers that pay minimum wage is like comparing the Steelers to a Pop Warner football league team."

While McDonald's workers were striking as close to Pennsylvania as Wilmington, Del., unions in Pennsylvania's two biggest cities are not organizing fast-food workers.

"Low-wage airport workers at the Philadelphia International Airport make fast-food wages and have begun organizing for family-sustaining wages and better conditions," Mr. Williamson said, explaining why there also were not fast-food strikes in Philadelphia.

Unions nationwide are targeting employers that pay wages that are below the poverty level.

In a report titled "The State of Working Pennsylvania" released on Wednesday, the Keystone Research Center in Harrisburg reported that low-wage jobs, those that pay $11.19 an hour or less, now made up 26 percent of all of the jobs in Pennsylvania, a 2.6 percent increase in one year. The center chose $11.19 an hour because at that level someone who worked 40 hours a week for 52 weeks a year would earn $23,283, which is below the poverty level for a family of four with two children.

Despite the stereotype of the high school student working at the fast-food counter, it's not just young people who have low-wage jobs. While 68.4 percent of workers aged 16 to 24 are earning poverty wages, so are 17.4 percent of workers aged 25 to 54 and 21.9 percent of workers over 55.

A separate report from the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based economic policy group, showed that 88 percent of the workers who are paid minimum wage are 20 years old or older and 28 percent of them have children.

While other companies affected would not comment on the strikes, McDonald's said in a statement that any move to raise entry-level pay at the stores the corporation owns would increase their overall costs and lead to higher menu prices.

"We respect our employees' rights to voice their opinions. Employees who participate in these activities and return to work are welcomed back and scheduled to work their regular shifts as usual," the company said.

Erica Volkman, 29, of West Mifflin and Dan Dilsaver, 24, of Shaler shared a $7.80 meal -- 20 McNuggets, french fries and a drink -- Thursday at the Downtown McDonald's on Stanwix Street, cognizant that their low-cost meal was being subsidized, in part, by the low wages of the workers.

A few months ago, they'd seen a report in which McDonald's offered employees a sample personal budget and it struck them that the company low-balled heating and transportation costs and even suggested employees work a second job,

"The reason we came here is because we needed a cheap and quick meal, so it's a double-edged sword," Ms. Volkman said.

But she said workers deserve higher wages. "No one should have to live like that."

Kenisha Clifford, 19, of Manchester has worked in that McDonald's for two years. She recently received a 35-cent-an-hour raise and is now paid $7.65 per hour, which, she said, is not nearly enough for someone who has to pay bills and for college.

"I let them know everyday I'm overworked and underpaid," she said.

Editor's Note: This story was revised to add reaction from UPMC and to note that the SEIU later called to correct its statement to emphasize that it was talking about service employees.

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Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699. Lexi Belculfine and The Associated Press contributed.


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