Ten clergy members, including Rabbi Ron Symons of Temple Sinai, were arrested for trespassing last Thursday at UPMC headquarters while protesting the wages the regional health care giant pays its lower level employees.
The clergy joined with about 100 people of faith from the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network (PIIN) in support of full-time employees at UPMC who struggle with health care debt and to provide food for their families, according to Symons.
“This is the civil rights issue of our era,” he said.
The organized protest, which continued Monday and Tuesday of this week, is part of PIIN’s “Love Thy Neighbor” campaign to support UPMC workers being paid a living wage.
Symons and his colleagues were arrested 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. The
Reform Jewish mandate supports living wages for those who don’t have them, Symons said. In fact, in a speech delivered to Reform leaders Thursday night at Temple Emanuel of South Hills, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, praised Symons for his efforts.
“From the very top, [it is acknowledged that] this is something of what it means to take Jewish values seriously,” Symons said.
Symons was the only rabbi among the 10 clergy protesting with PIIN.
PIIN is focusing on UPMC because it is the largest nongovernmental employer in the state, Symons said. The health care provider has more than 62,000 employees.
“We believe if they make the move, everyone else will follow,” Symons said. “I believe UPMC is a world class medical facility. We simply ask it become world class in terms of providing a living wage for its employees.”
A UPMC’s service worker’s starting wage in Pittsburgh is $11 per hour, compared to the local market service worker starting wage of $9.48 per hour, according to UPMC spokesperson Gloria Kreps. Its average service worker wage is $12.81 per hour or $26,644 annually.
Service workers are also offered “superior health benefits for themselves and their family members, retirement benefits that include both a defined benefit pension plan and a savings plan with employer matching contributions, and generous paid time off from work. This compensation is valued at $21 per hour or over $42,000 annually. Additionally, UPMC provides tuition reimburse-ment for employees who wish to further their education as well as tuition reimbursement for their spouses, partners and children,” Kreps said in a written statement.
Symons acknowledged that UPMC was “doing well” compared to other employers in the region,
“We thank them for doing well,” he said. “But they can do better. Our society requires that people can do better.”
Although Symons was arrested last Thursday, as of Tuesday this week, he was still awaiting a citation from the police department.
He said his action has garnered “overwhelming positive support from the congregation and from members of the community.”
“This is not just an economic issue,” he said, “but a sacred, moral issue.”
Mayor William Peduto, who was out of town on Tuesday as hundreds gathered again at UPMC headquarters in protest, acknowledged in a prepared statement the concerns of the workers and community leaders, but asked them to return home to their families.
“I know that there are families in this city who are struggling, and I respect the demonstrators who have been braving the elements to raise their concerns,” Peduto said, adding that he would be leaving a national conference in Washington, D.C., earlier than expected as a result of the demonstrations.
“Today, I want UPMC workers and protesters to know that I hear you,” the mayor said. “And I ask you to join me in bringing everyone together to talk about a plan to lift workers out of poverty; to ensure access to affordable healthcare; and to make sure that our city is getting its fair share of investments from all of our stakeholders.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)