Pitt negotiating contracts with union workers

By Dale Shoemaker / Assistant News Editor

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Pam Johnston’s livelihood is under negotiation.

After 23 years at Pitt, where she works on the crews that clean buildings, she now makes $16.42 an hour under her union’s contract, which gives workers an annual raise between 1.75 and 3 percent a year.

Despite this, as her wages increase every year, her health insurance costs increase alongside it.

“We’ve been at a standstill for [about] 10 years,” Johnston said.

The cost of health insurance is central to the negotiations between Pitt and the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ. The union’s contract with Pitt expired Dec. 31, 2014, but Pitt and the SEIU have agreed to extend the contract until the end of February to allow more time for negotiations, which began in November. Local 32BJ represents the approximately 400 service workers at Pitt.

Sam Williamson, a spokesman for 32BJ and its lead negotiator with Pitt, said wages and health insurance were the “bread and butter” issues of the negotiations and that, so far, the University has been “amicable” during negotiations.

Williamson said the union members want an agreement that makes sense economically and “provides workers with enough of a wage increase to keep up with the rising cost of living and allows workers to afford to pay for the high cost of health insurance.”

“Pitt charges [workers] a lot more for health insurance than its peers around the city or even around the state,” Williamson said, “and being able to pay for that and making sure their kids are covered under their plan … becomes more and more of a burden. One of our goals is making sure people are able to have good health insurance and not have to struggle to pay for it.”

In an email, University spokeswoman Cara Masset confirmed that a team of University negotiators are currently meeting with a team of 32BJ SEIU negotiators but that negotiations were not “being conducted in public.”

“A new agreement is being negotiated,” Masset said. “The University of Pittsburgh will continue in good faith to negotiate issues raised at the table. The negotiations are private.”

Masset also said the University was not “privy to the costs at other organizations,” and that the cost of health insurance for the service workers depends on the level of coverage at each organization.

Johnston said the current contract, which has been in place since 2011, is “a good contract,” but the cost of health insurance “is one of the biggest concerns.”

Williamson said Pitt, as one of the leading employers in western Pennsylvania, should continue to provide good wages and affordable health insurance to its service workers.

“[Pitt is] a major institution that is critical to the health and to the success of our economy and because of that they should lead … and fight for wages that raise [workers] out of poverty. Pitt has done a good job at [this]. We want them to continue to do that,” Williamson said.

The service workers at Pitt perform a variety of janitorial jobs, including cleaning classrooms and bathrooms, as well as more technical jobs like operating the autoclaves in the basement of the medical science building.

All Pitt employees, including administrators, professors and service workers, can buy the same health insurance. For a professor earning $50,000 per year, the most expensive health plan would cost 8 percent of his or her salary.

The top health insurance program option offered by Pitt is the Panther Gold plan, according to Pitt’s Human Resources website. The full monthly cost of this plan, which covers a family, is $1,303. Employees pay $335 of this a month, and Pitt pays the remaining $968. With this plan, employees pay $4,020 annually.

The cheapest plan that still covers a family, the Panther Basic plan, costs $1,014 a month. Employees pay $46 of this a month and Pitt pays the remaining $968. The amount employees are expected to pay for a doctor’s visit or medical procedure under this plan, though, is much higher than other plans.

Johnston would only say how much she makes an hour. She declined to provide a copy of her paycheck, and Pitt would not confirm what workers get paid, but at her current $16.42 hourly wage, Johnston makes roughly $32,000 a year. If she bought the Panther Gold family plan, her health insurance deductions would amount to about 12 percent of her salary. For a newly hired worker making $12.98 per hour, the Panther Gold family plan would amount to 15 percent of each month’s salary. 32BJ has also calculated this figure and published it on fliers that Union members have distributed around Pitt’s campus. 

Julie Blust, a representative for 32BJ SEIU, said these figures were based on Pitt’s starting wage and the monthly deduction to pay their share of their health insurance premium. Masset said the University considers salary information to be confidential and could not discuss the figures.

To compare, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, who gets paid $525,000 per year, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can buy this same health insurance plan through the University. Even if Chancellor Gallagher buys the Panther Gold family plan, his annual payments amount to less than 1 percent of his salary.

Other institutions like Pitt charge far less for the same health coverage, Williamson said, because their plans are tiered based on income. Penn State, for example, charges for health insurance based on a percentage of an employee’s income.

Penn State charges its employees 5.61 percent of their annual salary for a family plan. For an employee at Johnston’s pay grade, this is $140.37 per month, according to their human resources website, and for an employee at Pitt’s starting pay grade, $116.87 per month. For an individual plan, Penn State charges its employees 1.81 percent of their annual salary. For an employee at Johnston’s pay grade, Penn State charges $45.28 per month and for an employee at Pitt’s starting pay grade, Penn State charges $37.70 per month.

Johnston, who has helped the 32BJ SEIU with contract negotiations since 1998, said the other 400 service workers at Pitt feel similarly about the high cost of health insurance. In preparation for negotiations with the University, she and the other negotiators surveyed the other service workers by passing around questionnaires.

“We surveyed with the members about what needs to be changed, what needs to be tweaked,” Johnston said. “Then we sat down with the University. [This contract] is a big deal because it’s a big university. We asked people what’s important to them.”

The questionnaires asked the service employees questions like whether they were satisfied with their job and what improvements could make it better.

Williamson said negotiations began back in November. He said the Union and University have met “five or six times” to date, and he expects “another four or five meetings before the end of the month.”

The negotiations usually consist of 25 people in a room, he said, “a dozen from our side and approximately a dozen from the other side.”

Williamson and several other Union members, including Johnston, represent the union. Various department heads, Williamson said, including the head of Labor Relations, the head of Facilities Management and the head of Maintenance, represent Pitt, though John Fedele, University spokesman, declined to confirm this.

Johnston said affordable health care is important because the work she and the other service workers do is physical.

“Most workers are in their 40s and 50s,” Johnston said. “Some senior workers … are not retiring because of health insurance,” she said.

Williamson said 32BJ SEIU isn’t aware of specific work-related injuries but said he’s aware of how taxing their jobs can be.

“It’s a job where you’re on your feet all day long doing physical work all day long, whether you’re cleaning a classroom or dorm room or working as mover, moving heavy equipment around or cleaning dorms in summer,” Williamson said. “People get worn down. They get tired.”  

Despite this, Williamson said the service workers are dedicated to the University.

“They really feel like they’re part of the campus and making the students feel at home,” he said.

Johnston echoed these sentiments.

“We’re a part of this campus, and we still feel that,” Johnston said.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated that roughly 12 percent of Pam Johnston’s paychecks went towards her health insurance. This information was not verified and the article has been adjusted to reflect this.


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