Our not-so charitable charity: UPMC should do more for the city and its own employees

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Every day, and particularly during the holiday season, Pittsburgh’s nonprofits and charities are hard at work — organizing food drives, collecting gifts for kids whose parents are struggling to make ends meet, and bringing cheer to the elderly and the sick. Their dedication makes Pittsburgh a better place to live and shows us what charity is all about: bringing caritas — the love of humankind — to people experiencing hardship and suffering.

This holiday season also marked the end of Pittsburgh’s agreement with a group of tax-exempt nonprofits that give voluntarily to the city through the Pittsburgh Public Service Fund. Mayor-elect Bill Peduto is working hard to reach a new, long-term agreement that acknowledges the important role charities and nonprofits play in our city while also ensuring that our schools and other public services have the resources they need to serve our communities.

At the same time, Mr. Peduto is trying to hold our city’s largest nonprofit accountable. Unlike the rest of our charitable organizations, UPMC has made business decisions that have resulted in hardship for people who are already struggling, including its own employees.

Instead of investing in our people by creating as many good jobs as possible, UPMC pays many of its workers between 8 percent and 30 percent less than what they need to cover basic expenses — for groceries, rent and transportation. As a result, many UPMC workers must rely on food pantries for sustenance and public programs like Medicaid for health care.

Take C.J. Patterson. A family man and Pittsburgh native, C.J. just wants to be able to take his grandchildren to the movies once in a while. But even after 13 years of full-time employment at UPMC, C.J. is piecing together additional part-time work to cover the rent. He went to a food pantry for Thanksgiving dinner.

Workers don’t want charitable handouts; they just want UPMC to pay a decent wage for a hard day’s work.

UPMC’s low pay to service workers is not just a problem for a few individuals; it’s bad for the Pittsburgh region. Because UPMC is the largest employer, health-care provider and landowner in Pittsburgh, its impact on our families and economy is huge. With thousands of service workers earning a starting wage of as little as $10 an hour and an estimated median wage of $12.18 an hour, UPMC is fueling a low-wage economy that has sent one quarter of Pittsburghers into poverty.

Instead of engaging with workers calling for living wages and benefits, UPMC has systematically silenced them. It has run an aggressive and expensive anti-worker campaign, resulting in dozens of allegations by the federal labor board of illegal intimidation and discrimination. UPMC is even alleged to have fired workers for speaking out about improving their jobs.

Meanwhile, UPMC paid 27 key employees more than $1 million each in 2012 — totaling over $47.5 million. This amounts to about half the value of its charity care for the year. These executives then bought a corporate jet worth $51 million — about the value of the other half.

Keeping hardworking families in poverty and violating workers’ rights while handsomely rewarding top executives is about as far from charitable as it gets.

We the taxpayers give UPMC more than $200 million in tax breaks a year, money that could be used to support public education and public transit — transportation that many UPMC employees heavily rely on. This public money should be used for the public good.

Thankfully, the city is taking steps to hold UPMC accountable by challenging its status as a purely public charity and UPMC employees are continuing to speak out for their rights.

We must stand together as a city to hold UPMC accountable for paying its fair share to support the city and its own workers.

Sam Williamson is assistant director of 32BJ Service Employees International Union, Western Pennsylvania, which is trying to organize UPMC employees. Rev. John Welch, a former president of Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, sits on the board of the Gamaliel Foundation.

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