Pittsburgh City Council’s Wage Review Committee, spearheaded by Councilman Ricky Burgess, is recommending some of the region’s biggest employers increase their minimum wage.
The committee’s recommendation was made after hearing testimony from more than 150 low-wage workers, activists, labor leaders and economic experts – all primarily in the health care field.
Burgess said health care institutions in Pittsburgh have a “plantation mentality.”
He made the remarks Tuesday as he presented the findings and recommendations of the Wage Review Committee to his colleagues on council. The committee was charged with investigating the “impact of raising wages for service workers at Pittsburgh’s anchor institutions.”
After hearing testimony from those workers, the committee issued six recommendations:
- Endorse hospital workers’ call for a minimum industry wage of $15 an hour
- Call for employers to lower financial barriers to receiving care for hospital workers and their families
- Support workers’ right to form a union
- Encourage employers to engage employees in decision-making
- Expand and improve affordable housing
- Incentivize hospital employers to improve pay through budgeting, zoning, contracting and other means
According to a 2006 county court decision, later upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, council doesn’t have the authority to set a minimum wage for employers operating in the municipality. Republican legislators are working to codify that prohibition in state law.
The state minimum wage is currently at $7.25 per hour.
But Burgess is nonetheless attempting to use his position to “protect, preserve and expand affordability and livability for low and moderate income residents” through his City for All agenda, of which the Wage Review Committee is one part.
“I heard workers who had worked for the hospital for 25 years who didn’t make $15 an hour,” Burgess said, referring to the wage review committee hearings in October. “I heard workers who said they could not afford to put their children on the health care that the hospital provides because the co-pays and the (deductibles) were too high for them to live.”
It’s that reality that he said reminded him of a sharecropper system, wherein workers cannot afford to pay for the services they themselves deliver to patients.
He said despite that, he was struck by the workers’ dignity and their commitment to their patients.
Hospital and other service workers and their advocates spoke to council during the public comment period ahead of Burgess’s presentation of the report.
Ann Tadler works in the medical records department at Allegheny General Hospital.
“I work full time at the second largest hospital in the city, but with the high cost of living and the $12 an hour wage I earn, I can’t afford an apartment for me and my son, so we have to rely on living with my elderly parents,” she said.
James Threatt is a patient care technician in the oncology department at UPMC Shadyside, formerly Shadyside Hospital, where he has worked for 33 years.
“Right now I am one of few service workers who are making more than $15 an hour,” he said. “It shouldn’t take 33 years of service to (earn) a living wage.”
Registered nurse, author and New York Times columnist Theresa Brown said she had worked with James in the past, and that he and his fellow hospital service workers are “worth their weight in gold.”
“It is arrogance and indifference that fails to see the high cost of low wages on our health care systems even as our health outcomes are the worst in the industrialized world,” she said.
John Galley, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at UPMC said in a statement that the organization is proud of the wages, benefits and opportunities for advancement the company offers its employees.
“The $15-an-hour dialogue is a red herring, and any group or governmental entity supporting this is, in truth, simply supporting the (Service Employees International Union's) national organizing campaign,” he said. “Our jobs have meaning, purpose and fulfill an incredibly important mission for the region and the country.”
Allegheny Health Network did not immediately respond to requests for comment on this story.
Wage Review Committee members included, in addition to Burgess: Jeff Shook, associate professor of social work at the University of Pittsburgh; Steve Foreman, associate professor of health administration and economics at Robert Morris University; Majestic Lane, director of external relations and membership from the Pittsburgh Reinvestment Group; Ricardo Williams, manager of equity and inclusion in Mayor Bill Peduto’s office; and Maria Blunt, a food service worker and member of SEIU Local 32BJ.
Burgess’s City for All agenda also includes initiatives to protect and expand affordable housing options, add source of income as a protected class when it comes to housing discrimination and require developers to disclose the impact of development on the availability affordable housing.