Steven Kelley of McKees Rocks beats a drum as he marches along Liberty Avenue to McDonald's during an SEIU rally organized by One Pittsburgh on July 24. Some employees have argued that UPMC's low wages are not enough to support a family.
By Steve Twedt Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UPMC may be the state's largest employer with more than 50,000 people on staff locally, but the low wages that many of its service workers earn are eroding Pittsburgh's middle class, according to a white paper scheduled for release today by Pittsburgh United, a long-standing critic of UPMC's administration and supporter of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania's ongoing effort to unionize the health system's non-clinical staff.
Pittsburgh United said UPMC would not release pay rates for its workers but, based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data for the Pittsburgh area and interviews with UPMC workers, the group estimates that the health system's service workers earn a median wage of $12.18 per hour.
By comparison, they say, an analysis by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning Washington think tank, concluded that two Pittsburgh-area adults supporting a family of four and working full-time would each need to earn at least $15.85 an hour to earn "a secure yet modest" living standard.
In addition, "Of all Pennsylvania employers, UPMC has the third-highest number of full-time workers on medical assistance, after Wal-Mart/Sam's Club and McDonald's," the paper states, citing information from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.
According to the state numbers, UPMC in 2011 had 319 employees who worked at least 35 hours per week who were on Medicaid, which provides health coverage for low-income families, while Wal-Mart/Sam's Club had 704 employees and McDonald's had 434 employees on Medicaid.
The Department of Public Welfare chart also shows that 318 full-time Commonwealth of Pennsylvania employees are Medicaid recipients.
UPMC spokeswoman Susan Manko took issue with the report's figures on wages, saying the average compensation for full-time service workers at the health system is $19 an hour including health and retirement benefits, a defined benefits plan and an employer-matching savings plan.
"UPMC's compensation package far exceeds what other industries offer, and we continue to provide benefits most major corporations and governments are reducing or eliminating. A full-time service worker's earnings far, far exceed federal poverty level thresholds."
Ms. Manko said that although the report was done by Pittsburgh United, "It's pretty clear this report was created by and circulated by SEIU" as part of its union organizing campaign.
"This is more propaganda in SEIU Healthcare PA's long-running and spectacularly unsuccessful campaign to organize a small contingent of UPMC service workers. When working people see how the SEIU continuously wastes the dues of its members on nonsense like this, they are even less likely to ask it to represent them."
Barney Oursler, executive director of Pittsburgh United, a coalition of labor, environmental, community and faith-based organizations, said the group put the report together to draw attention to UPMC employees who are struggling to meet ends meet.
"As the leading employer in our region and a leader in new job growth in our economy, UPMC needs to meet a higher standard" as far as compensating its workers, he said. "What we found is that they were really failing in as far as offering employment that would rebuild the middle class in our community."
The report features personal stories of several current and former UPMC service employees, including city resident Jim Staus, 52, who said he was fired from his $11.81-an-hour job in July because of his support for the union organizing campaign, though UPMC officials told him it was for poor performance.
Mr. Staus worked as a supply specialist, stocking items such as saline bags, syringes and other medical supplies at UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland. While his annual salary amounted to about $21,000, he said $240 was deducted from his pay every two weeks for health insurance.
As sole financial support for his family of three, Mr. Staus said the family has been on food stamps and used food banks since he began working at UPMC more than seven years ago, a situation made all the more urgent now that he no longer has a job.
"Being that they're the largest employer, I thought they were actually going to have good paying jobs, but that's not the case," he said.