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City Commission Hearing Criticizes Grocery Store Wages

City of Pittsburgh District 9
Ricky Burgess is chairing a city commission that is pressing for better wages in the grocery industry.

On Thursday, Pittsburgh's Wage Review Committee gathered in an East Liberty church to discuss wages at grocery stores. And while Giant Eagle was once praised for offering good wages and benefits, critics testified that its reputation was past its sell-by date. 

The hearing, held at East Liberty's Eastminster Presbyterian Church, came at a time when Giant Eagle  has begun contract talks with the union representing its workers. The region's leading grocery chain was criticized by many of the hearing's two dozen speakers.
"After I pay my bills, I often end up without any money left over for gas or food," said Krissy Sentner, a Brookline resident who works at Giant Eagle's upscale Bethel Park Market District. "It's ridiculous that someone who works at a grocery store full-time can't afford to feed her own family."

Some more veteran employees said their own pay and benefits were good, but attributed that to previously negotiated union contracts, which protected existing employees while permitting lower wages for new hires. 

That two-tier pay scale was the subject of a February white paper by the union-backed Keystone Research Center. According to the 45-page report's narrative, Giant Eagle was "once a company that provided middle class careers to its ... employees."

That started changing in the 1980s, the report said, as the chain began relying more on part-time and lower-paid employees. "Within Western Pennsylvania, Giant Eagle, as the dominant regional grocery chain, spearheaded the transformation of jobs from middle-class to poverty-wage," it contends.

The paper and Thursday's gathering took place amid contract negotiations between Giant Eagle and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents employees and whose members were represented heavily Thursday night. The current contract is slated to expire at the end of June. 

In a statement, Giant Eagle said, ""We value our Team Members and all of their feedback. We remain committed to providing our Team Members with competitive wages and benefit plans, as well as growth opportunities for those working in our stores and across our company.""

No representatives from the company, or the industry as a whole, identified themselves during the event, and City Council Ricky Burgess says none were specifically invited: "This is an open forum, so anybody who wanted to participate could. But really we want to hear the stories from workers."

“This is not specific to any employer," he adds. "It’s really about the workers who work at this industry to see what their plights were.”

The commitee includes Burgess and fellow Councilor Anthony Coghill, representing the city's South Hills. Academics and two representatives are also on the committee.

City Council established the committee in 2015, citing a need to "review the impact of increasing the wages of service workers and service employees in the City of Pittsburgh." Within months, it released a 177-page report urging healthcare providers to raise wages for low-income workers. 

Months after the 2015 report's release, which came amid a lengthy battle between health care giant UPMC and another union, UPMC announced plans toraise wages of all workers to a minimum of $15 an hour over several years. 

The committee has been moribund since 2016. But Burgess said he reconvened it becuase "we were approached by the grocery workers union, and workers, to bring attention to their plight. We were very successful in getting the hopstial workers to $15, and we think that the call from the grocery workers was very similar."

Burgess says the commission will hold a future discussion in City Council chambers, and predicts it will release a report. 

"We will champion your issue," he told attendees at the end of the two-hour session. "We believe in $15 for everybody, and we're going to fight for it." 

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.