Rabbi Ron Symons of Temple Sinai and seven other local clergy were fined a total of $500 for charges associated with their Feb. 27 arrest for blocking the entrance to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center headquarters while they were protesting the treatment of the health care giant’s lower-level workers.
Symons and his colleagues drew the attention of law enforcement when they attempted to deliver a message to UPMC CEO Jeffrey Romoff regarding the salaries and benefits of the organization’s workers. When Romoff refused to accept the message, and the clergy refused to leave, they were arrested for trespassing.
At the June 12 hearing, Municipal Court Judge Anthony M. Ceoffe did not impose a sentence of community service because the faith leaders had already performed acts that they “believed to bein service to the community,” he said.
All charges were dropped.
The defendants were called to the bench together, and Symons spoke on behalf of the group, telling Ceoffe that he and his colleagues — all members of the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) — stood in civil disobediencein order to “change the conversation” in Pittsburgh concerning lower-level UPMC workers.
“We believe we can change the conversation to a sacred, moral conversation,” Symons told Ceoffe. “As the largest employer in the region, UPMC is in a position to lead the community. We want to break the gap between the haves and the have-nots. This is a matter of faith and sacred morality.”
Ceoffe fined the group $500 to compensate the city of Pittsburgh for the costs associated with the arrests.
“I’m very grateful that the judge gave credit to our cause by recognizing what we did as community service,” Symons told The Chronicle. “We need to change our circumstances in Pittsburgh so people who work a full week can support their families. That’s the mandate.”
Prior to the hearing, a group rallied in front of the municipal courthouse to support the charged clergy and to protest UPMC’s workers’ wages. The crowd cheered the clergy as they exited from the courthouse after the hearing.
“We are in this for the long run,” said Pastor Rodney Lyde of Baptist Temple Church. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. [UPMC] dug in their heels, but we just have to build a bigger coalition. We stand on this truth. We believe morally it’s right — it gives us fuel.”
This was the second time Lyde had been arrested for civil disobedience for protesting against UPMC.
While the current minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 per hour, and the proposed federal minimum wage would amount to $10.10 per hour, a UPMC’s service worker’s starting wage in Pittsburgh is $11 per hour; the local market service worker starting wage is $9.48 per hour, according to UPMC spokesperson Gloria Kreps. UPMC’s average service worker wage is $12.81 per hour, or $26,644 annually. Service workers also are offered health benefits for themselves and their family members, retirement benefits and paid time off from work for a compensation package valued at $21 per hour, or more than $42,000 annually.
PIIN is calling for UPMC to pay its workers a minimum of $15 an hour, which the organization says would add $14 million in new taxes for Pittsburgh Public Schools.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)