Union raises concerns over medical debt of UPMC workers

Amid an ongoing union organizing campaign, Service Employees International Union Healthcare Pennsylvania is highlighting what it describes as a prevalent problem involving medical debt owed by hospital workers at Pittsburgh-based UPMC, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Jan. 31. 

The union — which represents about 630 nurses at UPMC Altoona (Pa.) and is trying to organize about 3,500 hourly workers at UPMC Presbyterian and Shadyside hospitals, both in Pittsburgh — cites a survey conducted in 2019.

Union representatives said the survey of hundreds of workers at UPMC Presbyterian and Shadyside hospitals shows about 60 percent of the respondents owed medical debt to the fully integrated $23 billion global health system, according to the Post-Gazette.

"We aren't aware of medical debt at other health systems the way we are with UPMC workers, but we also know over half of Americans have medical debt," Matthew Yarnell, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, said in a statement shared with Becker's. "That's why, as the state's largest health system and one of its largest employers, it's critical that UPMC lead on the issue and eliminate medical debt for all of its employees."

In a separate statement shared with Becker's, UPMC did not directly address the union survey, but it stood by the benefits it offers employees.

"UPMC participates in a national survey conducted by AON that compares the value of employee benefits offered," the statement said. "From this survey of hundreds of leading companies, we benchmark ourselves against 16 healthcare providers and healthcare insurers, such as [Boston-based] Mass General Brigham, [Dallas-based] Baylor Scott & White, Cleveland Clinic, United Healthcare, [St. Louis-based] Barnes-Jewish, [Oakland, Calif.-based] Kaiser Permanente, among others. Compared to this benchmark group, UPMC ranks in the top tier in terms of the value of our benefits to our employees."

UPMC, which has its own health plan, specifically noted its benefit that waives the first $1,000 in medical expenses for each individual low-wage worker and $2,000 for the families of low-wage workers, according to the Post-Gazette

Medical debt is among the issues raised by the union as it continues to try to organize UPMC workers, the Post-Gazette reported. 

The union has also highlighted issues such as staffing, pay and unionization rights. In November, organizers of a one-day walkout said workers want a $20 per hour minimum wage, safer staffing, better insurance and the right to form their union. 

The union claims that shining a spotlight on the issues is a contributing factor for UPMC offering sweeteners such as bonuses, according to the Post-Gazette.

On Nov. 2, UPMC announced it would give 92,000 staff members a bonus of $500 to thank them for their work during the pandemic. 

In announcing the bonus, UPMC President and CEO Leslie Davis told workers, "Over the past 20 months, you have risen in truly exceptional ways to meet challenges we could have never anticipated. With your critical support, UPMC continues to care for so many."

UPMC also offered a 5 percent raise for the starting pay of hourly workers, in addition to a one-year freezing of employees' healthcare costs and a health system-funded health savings account for lower-wage workers, according to the Post-Gazette.

But Christoria Hughes, a former dietary worker at UPMC Presbyterian who played a key role in the union movement but retired last year still owing UPMC about $4,000, told the newspaper that more needs to be done.

SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania has been trying to organize workers at UPMC Presbyterian and Shadyside hospitals for a decade. 

Read the full Post-Gazette report here.

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