When Jim Staus was cornered at a staff meeting for wearing a sticker in support of forming a union at UPMC, he knew it wasn’t right.
“Shortly thereafter, my life at work became a living hell,” says Staus, who supplied nursing departments with everything from band-aids to needles and gloves. “They put me on a performance improvement plan after seven-and-a-half years of working. My performance dropped for some unknown reason according to them. According to me, I was still doing the same things at work.”
Staus is now among a group of four workers who say they are refusing a “significant” settlement offer in a federal National Labor Relations Board
case accusing UPMC of several unfair labor practices including retaliating against employees for their unionization efforts. Neither the workers refusing the settlement nor the Service Employees International Union
will reveal the amount of the settlement because the NLRB case is still pending
. A UPMC spokesperson declined comment when asked about the settlement.
The SEIU is aiming to organize UPMC’s 10,000 service workers. UPMC runs 22 hospitals in the region and employees 62,000.
“UPMC thinks they can buy everything and anything. That’s why we’re saying we’re not for sale,” says Staus, who also shares his tale in a new documentary on the issue commissioned by the workers’ group Make It Our UPMC
Upon his termination, Staus was making $11.81 an hour and says that one-third of his pay went to health benefits. Yet, he still says he and the others are not backing down.
“It’s bigger than this money,” says Leslie Poston, a secretary in Heart and Lung Transplant department at UPMC Presbyterian who has been at UPMC for 11 years. “They’re not going to shut us up. We want them to be accountable.”
Unlike Staus, Poston is still employed by UPMC. “It’s tense, but I haven’t shut my mouth. I do my work. I do what I’m supposed to do.”
The NLRB has issued two complaints against UPMC for violating the National Labor Relations Act
included 80 allegations against the healthcare giant in December 2012 and was settled in January 2013. Surveillance, suspension and termination of employees for union activities were among the allegations. The NLRB alleges that as early as February 2013, UPMC continued its illegal actions, and so the federal agency launched
for — among several allegations — illegally firing the four workers who are now refusing the settlement.
“We’re sacrificing a lot. We could lose [the NLRB case],” says Ron Oakes, a former Transport Department employee at UPMC Presbyterian and Montefiore. “We’ve been at this for three years now. This is more of a fight for co-workers and the next generation of the City of Pittsburgh, our kids and their kids.”
UPMC initially reinstated Oakes after it settled the first NLRB case. UPMC terminated Oakes a second time in March 2013 for taking an “unauthorized” break, a rule he says employees who didn’t support the union were allowed to break.
“When I went back, I did my work no differently than I did before,” Oakes says. “How do you get fired three weeks later?”
In April The New York Times
published a piece
on the unionization efforts, UPMC Chief Legal Officer W. Thomas McGough Jr. alleged that SEIU encourages pro-union employees to under perform so that they can frame their disciplinary actions as discrimination against their union efforts.
McGough told the Times
it was “surprising they haven’t been able to provoke us into more activities that they claim are illegal.”
Workers say they’re working hard to organize because they want a living wage. They also say they feel “in debt” to their employer — much of their pay, they say, is going toward health benefits and medical bills from UPMC, as well as parking fees.
“I have a co-pay which I don’t mind, but then I get another bill. Needless to say, I got a bag of bills at home,” says Poston, who adds her take-home pay is $13.45 an hour before taxes, health benefits and parking fees are deducted.
UPMC’s Senior Vice President of Human Resources Gregory K. Peaslee told Times
that UPMC pays its workers fairly and that even $15 an hour – what workers are pushing for – would cost $600 million per year and affect the institution’s operating budget.
But workers have continually pointed to UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff’s multi-million dollar salary and perks.
According to tax documents compiled by the public-policy think tank The Century Foundation
’s report entitled “
UPMC Drives Largest Anti-Union Campaign in Pittsburgh
,” Romoff made $6 million in 2012, more than the CEOs of The Cleveland Clinic, Harvard’s Partners Healthcare System and Johns Hopkins Medicine.
“When it became harder for myself and co-workers to afford basic essentials like food, clothing and rent, I decided to speak up,” Al Turner, another former worker rejecting the settlement, said in the Century Foundation report.
Turner’s pastor Rev. Rodney Lyde of Baptist Temple Church in Homewood says that Turner sought guidance on the decision to reject the settlement.
“It’s a sacrifice not in an abstract sense. This is a real personal sacrifice,” Rev. Lyde says. “I know that losing an income has been difficult, and I know that this settlement would’ve made a big difference in helping their quality of life at least for the meantime.”
Jim Staus vs. UPMC from Phinehas Hodges on Vimeo.