UPMC employees protest job, wage cuts

It’s not that they don’t want to speak up. But the biggest difference between Barbara Mathis and the other UPMC employees who have been laid off over the past few months is that she refused to sign a confidential severance agreement with the region’s largest hospital network.

Because she’s not signing it, the former supplies technician is free to discuss her experience at UPMC, as well as ongoing staff churn and staff concerns. In so doing, she’s also bypassing the gross layoff settlement of $6,182 that UPMC offered.

She was laid off during the second week of July.

At least 30 arrested during rally against UPMC

Hundreds of UPMC workers, janitors, faith leaders, union members, community groups and other Pittsburghers marched to UPMC's headquarters to demand more. At least 30 people were arrested during the rally. (Video by Ye Zhu; 7/31/2014)

“They said that [they were making] financial cuts, money cuts,” Ms. Mathis, who is deaf, said through an American Sign Language interpreter. “They told me I could not talk about it. They were going to lay me off, and that was it. ... I was shocked, dumbfounded.”

By her own account, she never had any performance issues. At the time of her layoff, she had been with UPMC for 23 years, and was making $12.88 an hour. Ms. Mathis, 49, lives in Bloomfield and had worked at UPMC Presbyterian.

“There are many people being laid off that I know of,” Ms. Mathis said through the interpreter. “People should know what UPMC is doing.”

John Heller/Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh police arrested at least 20 workers during a union demonstration Wednesday afternoon outside UPMC headquarters on Grant street.

Historically, layoffs are small but constant part of the total employment picture at UPMC, which has a workforce of about 62,000. Salary and benefit expenses are up year-over-year in the quarter that ended March 31, and a UPMC spokeswoman said that the system’s total workforce has grown since last year.

Asked how many employees had been laid off so far this year, or how many had seen reduced hours and pay, UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps said that “our net head count is up about 1,000, year-over-year. We are always hiring and adjusting. ... Over the past several years, we've hired, on average, about 9,500 people per year and, on average, about 8,000 leave in any given year, most through attrition and some through terminations [and] layoffs.

“But there is not a specific initiative in which we're targeting reducing the workforce.”

Certain properties within the larger system may be targeted, though. “Individual business unit employment numbers may be up, and down, as we add a hospital, sell a business,” Ms. Kreps said. “This is nothing new.”

UPMC employees, while acknowledging that turnover and “adjustment” are endless in a health system as big as this one, say the severity of those adjustments is what’s new. More significant than layoffs, according to current and former employees, more employees are being asked to reapply for jobs they already have, and others are having their hours cut dramatically. On top of that, open positions aren’t always filled, meaning existing staff has to cover for the missing worker-hours.

The belt-tightening, they say, comes during a challenging time for acute care hospitals nationwide, and also comes in advance of UPMC’s partial split from Highmark Health, the region’s biggest health insurer. After Dec. 31, Highmark’s commercial customers won’t have full, in-network access to all of UPMC’s hospitals and doctors. Allegheny County and East End hospitals could bear the brunt of the smaller workloads, because Highmark customers will lose in-network access to Magee-Womens, Montefiore, Passavant, Presbyterian, Shadyside, St. Margaret, McKeesport and UPMC East.

Hospitals in suburban counties, as well as Children’s Hospital, Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic and UPMC Mercy remain in the network. Currently, Highmark supplies about 19 percent of UPMC’s gross patient service revenues.

Dennis Gabos, a UPMC Passavant cardiologist who has been an outspoken critic of UPMC’s strategy to limit Highmark access to his own health network, says UPMC’s historical hiring and attrition numbers will be meaningless come Jan. 1.

“History is going to change. ... If you were to ask any employee, they would tell you that there [will] be anticipated decreases in workload,” said Dr. Gabos, whose own employment contract with UPMC runs through next summer.

“It’s on the minds of so many” colleagues and staff, he said. “There will be an impact on employment. [And] if doesn’t impact the number of employees, it will impact their hours.”

He said he doesn’t expect mass layoffs at UPMC largely because of the transient nature of lower-level health care workers — with turnover rates in the double digits, UPMC can adjust its workforce if it needs to simply by waiting a few months and waiting for attrition to take effect.

“It won’t have to look that ugly,” Dr. Gabos said. But the “mumbling among employees who have any common sense at all is that they fear for their hours.”


John Heller/Post-Gazette

Union workers Nancy Smith and Charene Kindle, both UFCW local 23 members, rally against UPMC with several hundred others on the steps of UPMC headquarters on Grant street.


Tales of targeted layoffs and reduced pay or hours among technicians, clinicians and secretarial staff have been repeated in dozens of phone calls and emails to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette over the past several weeks by UPMC employees, but none wished to be quoted for fear of losing their jobs — or losing their severance.

“If I accept that money, then I would never be allowed to speak out. ... That was what they told me,” Ms. Mathis said.

She spoke to the Post-Gazette on Wednesday afternoon, then spoke later in the day at a UPMC protest in Downtown being conducted by SEIU, which is seeking to organize some UPMC workers. At the rally, she theatrically ripped up her severance agreement.

SEIU isn’t covering that loss, or compensating her in any formal way, an SEIU spokeswoman said, but it may be organizing a fundraiser for her.

UPMC’s severance agreements contain a non-disclosure clause that prevents the discharged employee from discussing the terms of the layoff, or the financial agreement, with anyone beyond spouses, accountants and financial advisers.

“Non-compliance with the terms and conditions of this paragraph will be construed by UPMC to be a breach of contract and entitle it to seek remedies,” including financial damages, recovery of the severance already paid out, and attorneys’ fees, the agreement says.

Many employers include confidentiality provisions in severance agreements, and courts have generally ruled that such clauses are legal and enforceable. The only way to evade the non-disclosure clause is to not sign the settlement.

Asked if she felt nervous rejecting the severance money and speaking up about UPMC, she said she didn’t.

“I feel brave,” she said Wednesday.

The interview with Ms. Mathis, organized by the Service Employees International Union, was part of the union’s a daylong media blitz against UPMC. In the morning, six people were cited for trespassing as they protested UPMC’s recent contract cancellation with its unionized cleaning firm.

The sit-in protesters were demanding a meeting with Janet Crowley​, a UPMC property manager based in Shadyside. One of the six cited, Steven Kelley, 48, of McKees Rocks, said he was prepared to be arrested in the process.

“What they're doing here is wrong,” he said, as a group of around 30 chanted outside the Aiken Medical Building where Ms. Crowley works. “There are six people who don't have a job.”

Until May, Shadyside Medical Building, which is next to UPMC Shadyside, was cleaned by​ union workers from Pitcairn​-based​ ​ServiceMaster franchise​.​ The health system used an option in the agreement to rebid it, awarding a new contract to a company called Manage It, which does not have a unionized labor force.

The group started chanting Wednesday morning along Centre Avenue near a banner with balloons that read, “UPMC: Life Changing Firings.” Protesters moved to the hospital grounds next, where they were met by UPMC security and Pittsburgh police, and briefly sat down. The six people who were cited also sat down inside the Aiken Medical Building.


Darrell Sapp/Post-Gazette

Protesters stage a sit-in near the entrance to UPMC Shadyside Hospital Wednesday. Six people were cited during the sit-in, which was protesting the replacement of a cleaning contract with a non-union staff.


One security guard told a protester outside, “This is a hospital” and asked how he would feel if his family member was inside during such a disturbance.

“I wouldn't feel good,” union coordinator Tim Finucan told a reporter later, recalling the encounter, “but I also don't feel good about the people who lost their jobs.”

The ServiceMaster contract employed 10 cleaners. Their last day was June 27. An SEIU Local 32BJ spokeswoman said they have found part-time work since then.

Wednesday afternoon’s protest snarled rush-hour traffic in Downtown and involved a police-escorted march from the newly re-opened Mellon Square Park, along Sixth Avenue and ended in front of UPMC headquarters on Grant Street. The demonstrators sang and chanted there, and at least 20 were arrested in a choreographed display of civil disobedience.

Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625. Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944. Matt Nussbaum contributed.

First Published July 30, 2014 11:50 AM

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