UPMC employees to suffer if Pennsylvania becomes a right-to-work state

By Stephen Suss / Columnist

In this age, the word “union” carries a negative connotation. Once the sole bastion of the blue-collar worker, to which workers looked for help to ensure receipt of reasonable pay, proper working conditions and benefits, unions are now better known as the bane of capitalism: Organizations that bully workers into joining, bribe politicians through lobbying and are responsible for corporate outsourcing. In light of this stigma, the number of American workers belonging to unions is at a historic low of 11.3 percent.

In fact, the percent of Americans belonging to unions has been in sharp decline since the mid 1970s due to a number of factors — one being that more and more states have made efforts to follow the “right-to-work” policy, which does not require compulsory membership in a union from individuals in certain professions. Although Pennsylvania is not yet among these states, several Pennsylvania Republicans have recently joined the push for the state to join the right-to-work roster. 

But this may not be the best option for everyone. UPMC employees in western Pennsylvania, for instance, are seeing “right-to-work” in a threatening light.

The reason? Some unions in Pennsylvania are still looking pretty heroic, especially when it comes to defending UPMC workers. When allegations of UPMC service employees being fired for attempting to unionize popped up, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania staged a march on Labor Day challenging UPMC’s actions. The union was able to regain one of two employee’s positions by filing complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. The board states that there is evidence that UPMC violated federal law by illegally firing and intimidating workers.

Unsatisfied, the Service Employees International Union and many workers are still protesting that wages and benefits are too low and continue to push for the unionization of UPMC’s service jobs.

The health care giant disagrees with these claims and argues that when factoring in employee benefits, full-time workers actually make up to $21 per hour. However, actual wages top out at around $15 per hour and many UPMC employees say they make barely enough to get by — and that very well may be the case. To put these numbers into perspective, $15 an hour equates roughly to a gross annual income of $31,000. But after paying federal and state taxes alone, employees only see about $25,400 of that. It’s hard to raise a family on that income.

In theory, UPMC exists to better the communities it serves. So why does this nonprofit organization, exempt from corporate taxation, find itself paying workers so little? 

The answer is because UMPC doesn’t really act like a nonprofit organization, but like a corporation. That’s not to say that UPMC hasn’t invested in the community — it certainly has. But other actions the health care system has taken suggest that UPMC is looking to make a buck, even if it cuts people off from resources they need.

For example, let’s take a look at the salary of UPMC’s CEO, Jeffrey Romoff. Mr. Romoff makes an annual salary of close to $5.97 million. Sure, he is the No. 1-earning CEO of a nonprofit hospital, but why shouldn’t he be? He has a hard job running UPMC: one of the nation’s leading hospitals, ranked 10th best nationwide by U.S.News & World Report. Also, UPMC is the top-grossing nonprofit hospital in the country, bringing in $10.19 billion this last year — surely they can afford to pay him that much.

But let’s look at how other nonprofit hospital CEOs are compensated — and realize the enormity of Romoff’s salary by comparison. No. 2 on the list of highest-earning nonprofit hospital executives is Delos Cosgrove, CEO of the renowned Cleveland Clinic. He earns $2.31 million annually — less than half of what Romoff does. In addition, the Cleveland Clinic has an annual revenue of $9.6 billion, not far off from UPMC, but it is ranked higher by U.S.News & World Report as the fourth-best hospital in the nation. 

Let’s also look at the CEO of Massachusetts General Hospital, considered second-best in the nation by U.S.News & World report. He’s ranked 11th-highest in earnings making a measly (in hospital CEO terms) $2.24 million. Somehow, he still manages to run a world-class hospital, despite having a smaller yearly salary.

Startlingly, overcompensation may even spread to the rest of UPMC’s executive board. “Make It Our UPMC,” a Service Employees International Union-sponsored project challenging the hospital to give its service workers better wages, claims that the hospitals’ 27 executives are compensated, collectively, $47.5 million a year. The project also claims that UPMC has the third-highest number of full-time workers on Medicaid assistance, after Wal-Mart and McDonald’s. This begs the question: How long does the trickle-down take?

This massive executive compensation at UPMC exhibits how this hospital acts like a for-profit corporation that is only nonprofit in name. With the amount of power UPMC wields, making Pennsylvania a “right-to-work” state would give UPMC the possibility to force people not to join a union in order to be employed. As long as UPMC remains the health care monolith it’s become, most UPMC service workers are safer if Pennsylvania doesn’t become right-to-work.