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Activists Derail UPMC Shadyside And Presby Board Meeting During Pro-Union Day Of Action

Rachel Gobep
UPMC workers and activists rally outside Montefiore Hospital on Tuesday, May 28, 2019.

Dozens of UPMC workers and allies rallied Tuesday outside UPMC Montefiore Medical Center, ahead of the health service’s annual public meeting. Employees say the nonprofit has harassed and intimidated workers who try to unionize for better pay and benefits.


Christoria Hughes, a dietary technician at UPMC Presbyterian, said she’s worked has worked at the hospital for 10 years and only recently started making $15 an hour. She said she’s upset that UPMC won’t give all employees a minimum wage of $15 until 2021 while the company’s CEO, Jeffrey Romoff, is making $8.5 million a year.


“Somebody needs to explain why he gets eight million and I can’t pay my bills,” Hughes said.


Matthew Demers, a research project coordinator at UPMC, said he and his coworkers are underpaid and overworked. He said his workplace is understaffed and that he’s observed the same trend at all UPMC hospitals.


“It’s threatening patient safety. Everyone owes UPMC money for their medical care. Insurance rates keep going up, even though they own the insurance company,” Demers said. “The pay isn’t going up, but Jeffrey Romoff’s is. We’ve pretty much had it. We need to unionize.”


He said by striking, he hopes to get more people involved with the unionization effort.


Inside the hospital, slow security screening process held up many from being present at the start of the meeting, including State Reps. Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato. Some attendees expressed frustration that more people weren’t allowed in. G. Nicholas Beckwith III, who is the chairman of both UPMC’s board and of the board for Shadyside-Presbyterian hospitals, said it was because they hadn’t pre-registered.


Members of the public frequently interrupted Beckwith and other presenters, to voice criticisms regarding UPMC’s efforts to curtail union activity, refusal to accept Highmark Health insurance, and service worker pay, which averages $15.09 an hour.


Beckwith threatened to end the meeting if the audience wasn’t quiet, and said that there would be 10 minutes at the end for public comment. Activists said that wouldn’t be enough, to which Beckwith replied that since most comments would be “redundant,” the allotted time was enough.


Public comment started roughly 10 minutes early. As audience members spoke and clapped, the board sat silently, with some board members looking down or otherwise averting their gaze from the speakers.


Most board members left the room quickly through a seperate exit. Though Karen Wolk Feinstein, the executive director of the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, did speak with reporters after the meeting.


Feinstein emphasized that the board only oversaw Shadyside and Presbyterian hospitals, not the entire UPMC system.


“There are a lot of compelling stories, a lot of people are suffering because of the challenges we have as patients and employers to try to get it right,” said Feinstein, in response to the public comments.


But Feinstein said she doesn’t have the power to address the grievances raised by the public.  


“If it relates to quality, safety and patients care I’m all ears,” said Feinstein, “but you have to understand that this may not be the group that has control over the issues that are being discussed.”


In August, the National Labor Relations Board ruled UPMC violated workers’ rights by illegally interfering with employee efforts to unionize. The NLRB said the health care conglomerate threatened workers with poor performance reviews, prohibited people from distributing union materials and tried to ban union conversations during non-work time.


In a September statement, a UPMC spokesperson did not dispute charges that it surveilled and intimidated workers, but pointed to one instance where the NLRB upheld disciplinary action against an employee.

WESA receives funding from UPMC and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.