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UPMC workers plan to strike if demands for higher pay aren't met

A group of people hold signs protesting low pay at UPMC hospital.
Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA News.
UPMC workers demonstrate outside the medical system's downtown Pittsburgh headquarters. They plan to strike on Nov. 18, 2021.

Some 30 people demonstrated outside UPMC’s downtown Pittsburgh headquarters to announce their plan to strike on Nov. 18 in an attempt to get better pay and working conditions.

Organizers say as of now 200-300 people have agreed to participate in this coordinated refusal to stop work, though that number may grow. The group comprises many types of UPMC employees including dietary workers, housekeepers, and administrative assistants, along with clinical staff such as nurses and surgical techs.

Recently, UPMC, which generated $1 billion in earnings last year, gave staff a one-time bonus of $500. Demonstrators say their goal is a "livable wage" of at least $20 an hour and the bonus money is not enough.

One person who intends to strike is resident Lawrenceville Juilia Centofani, a pharmacy tech at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. This year Centofani’s daughter, Juniper, spent two days in the children’s hospital due to a respiratory infection. Because she had to take unpaid time off work to care for her daughter, the medical emergency was a financial hardship that drove Centofani’s family into food insecurity.

During a visit with her daughter’s pediatrician, who also works at UPMC Children’s, Centofani revealed she was having a hard time making ends meet. The doctor referred Centofani to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which is now sending her a box of dry food twice a week.

“The fact that my employer would rather send me dry food … than pay me a livable wage is atrocious,” said Centofani.

Centofani, who makes $15.45 an hour, has UPMC insurance. So arguably the medical system should know about her limited capacity to pay medical costs. Despite this, she says the $2,000 hospital bill for her daughter's treatment has been sent to collections.

“I still can’t afford to pay it,” said Centofani. “I get the [bills] in the mail. At this point, it’s just depressing to look at. I put them right in the trash.”

Another person who plans to strike is Khalil Brown, who works in the food service and nutrition department of UPMC Presbyterian Hospital. Brown pointed out that if everyone went on strike, the medical system would not be able to function.

“Take care of us, [and] we will take care of you,” said Brown. “Do not screw around. We’re not playing around.”

Brown and Centofani’s experiences are not unique, according to University of Pittsburgh researcher Jeffery Shook, who has studied area hospital workers. He cited data that found that 64% of these employees have had trouble paying their rent, mortgage or utility bills. Nearly 60% of those surveyed had outstanding medical debt or struggled to buy food or medicine.

While speaking to demonstrators, State Senator Lindsey Williams noted that UPMC is the largest non-governmental employer in Pennsylvania. She argued that wages paid by the medical system mean a large number of people must rely on social safety net programs.

“Our taxes pay for that, while UPMC doesn’t pay’s shameful,” said Williams, referring to UPMC’s tax-exempt status as a nonprofit.

UPMC workers are not alone in their dissatisfaction. Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest nonprofit systems in the country, is grappling with a number of labor issues including possible nurses’ strikes in Oregon, Washington and California. Unionized hospital workers in Huntington, W.Va. went on strike this week, and workers in Buffalo, N.Y. have been striking for a month.

None of this shocks Johns Hopkins University medical sociologist Svea Closser, whose 2020 study found that employees at her university’s hospital are also extremely dissatisfied with low pay, understaffing, and a lack of recognition for the danger and sacrifices they endured due to COVID-19. She said what Hopkins workers deal with is definitely experienced elsewhere.

“I’m not at all surprised to see strikes,” she said. “I think it’s a little more surprising to me that it’s taken so long.”

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.