Religious group protests against UPMC wages

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The Rev. Rodney Lyde recalled a moment several months ago when a member of his congregation told of his efforts to push for better compensation at his job as a transportation worker at UPMC. Rev. Lyde asked him why he was willing to take such a bold stance.

"He said, 'Well, Rev. Lyde, I've been listening to your sermons,' " the pastor said.

That "hit close to home," Rev. Lyde said. "I had to move from just abstract support to [asking], 'When's that next meeting again?' "

Rev. Lyde and about a dozen others with the clergy leadership team of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, or PIIN -- a faith-based community organizing group -- met Thursday at St. James Episcopal Church in Penn Hills to plan what they are calling the "Love Thy Neighbor Campaign."

Its target is UPMC, the state's largest private employer. The activists are planning a community meeting and a rally to call on UPMC to raise the hourly wages for those in service and support positions.

UPMC counters that it already pays well above minimum wage and at levels similar to those of the retail corporation Costco, which recently received President Barack Obama's praise in his calls to raise the minimum wage above $10.

"Perhaps if the president knew our pay, he would agree that we are a good employer," UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps said.

She said that at UPMC, "the average base wage, excluding executive salaries and physician salaries, is nearly $30 per hour, or more than $61,000 annually plus another $15,000 in benefits."

Starting wages at UPMC's Pittsburgh facilities, she said, begin at $11 an hour with an increase to $11.50 after six months. Health and other benefits increase that compensation, she said.

But the clergy group contends UPMC isn't compensating many of its lower-paid workers enough to meet basic family needs -- and that even with health insurance available to them, some can't afford their share of premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

The group cited two recent studies -- by PathWays PA, which advocates for low-income residents, and the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank focusing on policies affecting lower-income workers. The studies said that for a family of four, each parent would need to earn between $13 and $15 per hour to meet basic expenses in Pittsburgh.

"If we don't bring a moral argument to this, we might as well shut our doors and be quiet," said the Rev. John Welch, at the PIIN clergy leadership meeting. "A lot of people are already making the economic argument. I want to make the moral argument. It's just greed run amok and we need to do something about this."

The group plans to hold a community hearing on the matter at 7 p.m. Feb. 25 at Baptist Temple, 7241 Race St., in Homewood. It also hopes to hold a rally outside UPMC headquarters but has not confirmed a date yet.

Also at its recent meeting, PIIN leaders heard from a representative of nurses who last week held a 24-hour strike at UPMC Altoona over stalled contract talks there.

Starr Romano, a registered nurse and vice president of the Altoona unit of Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania, said nurses are seeking to carry over language from their recently expired contract to the new one that would specify a minimum number of staff members per patient at the hospital. She said this is crucial both for the nurses and for patient care.

"We're not going to give this away," Ms. Romano said. "This was never about money. This was about taking care of patients in their beds to help them get well and get them back to their lives."

UPMC acquired the hospital in July. Ms. Kreps said that UPMC has "offered annual salary increases as well as excellent benefits to help transition the nurses from their current program to ours" in Altoona. "Also, the retirement package that we are offering is 35 percent richer than the current contract and what has been offered to Altoona's newly hired nurses for the last six years."

Peter Smith:, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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