City Councilman Ricky Burgess drew comparisons to plantations, sharecroppers and “slave wages” Tuesday when he delivered the report of his Wage Review Committee to his colleagues.
By Robert Zullo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Taking square aim at Pittsburgh’s large healthcare and education nonprofits, City Councilman Ricky Burgess drew comparisons to plantations, sharecroppers and “slave wages” Tuesday when he delivered the report of his Wage Review Committee to his colleagues.
“As you know, I am no friend of UPMC’s. I believe they should be paying payments in lieu of taxes,” Mr. Burgess said of the region’s largest employer, which is mostly tax-exempt. “I think it’s a national disgrace that they’re sitting on billions of dollars … but refuse to pay their fair share. … They hurt our city and they hurt our workers. Anyone who reads this study, you’ll go home and you’ll cry.”
The 177-page report, largely testimony from scores of workers, was the product of about two months of work and two public hearings by the six-member committee chaired by Mr. Burgess and composed of members from local universities, city government, Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ and a nonprofit coalition.
The report found that the city’s healthcare systems, including the Highmark-owned Allegheny Health Network, “play a decisive role in setting employment standards” across the region, including as “wage-makers” in the local labor market. UPMC alone employs at least 43,000 people in the Pittsburgh area.
The committee found that wages paid to hospital service workers, which it said averaged around $12.94 an hour, are “insufficient to allow hospital workers to live in even modest comfort in Pittsburgh” and lead to public costs, such as subsidies for housing. Many health care system employees reported being unable to afford the health coverage their employer offers as well as trouble covering basic bills like utilities, car insurance and groceries.
Among the committee’s recommendations for City Council: endorsing calls for minimum wage of at least $15 an hour, supporting unionization, expanding affordable housing options and taking action to “incentivize hospital employers to improve pay and working conditions… through the exercise of its authority in the areas on budgeting, contracting, zoning and building codes, public health and safety.”
Mr. Burgess said that could take the form of tougher zoning approvals for facilities’ expansions and mentioned past efforts at trying to pass hospital bed taxes and tuition taxes as “levers that the city has to encourage hospital behavior.”
The councilman’s campaign, part of his “City for All” legislative package, comes as Mayor Bill Peduto’s administration still negotiates a major financial contribution from the city’s large nonprofits more than a year after his administration dropped a lawsuit seeking to strip UPMC of its nonprofit status.
“I’ve not been apprised of those negotiations, but I’m not very hopeful,” Mr. Burgess said, adding that in his eight years on council those talks had yet to bear any fruit.
John Galley, UPMC’s senior vice president and chief human resources officer, said the talk about raising wages to at least $15 an hour is “a red herring” in an emailed statement.
“Any group or governmental entity supporting this is, in-truth, simply supporting the SEIU’s national organizing campaign,” he said. “This is the only reason why UPMC is associated with this particular issue, not because our wages are below market or the healthcare industry averages.”
Robert Zullo: email@example.com or 412-263-3909. Twitter: @rczullo.
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