In this photo, Pittsburgh’s U.S. Steel Tower, whose upper reaches bear the initials of the city’s largest employer. Flickr Creative Commons/Adam Sacco
By Cole Strangler
International Business Times
Oct 22, 2015 – The tallest building in Pittsburgh owes its title to the industrial giant that made the city famous. But instead of its floundering namesake, the U.S. Steel Tower now displays the initials of a different sort of employer: the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, or UPMC.
When the signage went up eight years ago, it seemed, as the New York Times noted, to perfectly epitomize the evolution of a city and its labor force — from an economy once world-renowned for its manufacturing might to one focused on “eds and meds”; a place where the working classes flock to booming research institutions and hospitals, not coke plants or blast furnaces.
In the old economy, steelworkers won pay raises and benefits that transformed what used to be a grueling, low-wage job into a virtual ticket to the middle class. But according to policymakers and labor advocates, too many workers in the new Pittsburgh are still struggling to make ends meet.
At hearings slated to kick off Thursday, a newly-formed, city council-backed wage committee plans to shed light on the problem — and consider a potential remedy: Whether to follow the examples set by Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles and adopt a $15 hourly minimum wage, more than double the current statewide minimum of $7.25. This is the core demand of the Fight For 15, the protest movement backed by the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
“We’ve been talking about the need to increase the minimum wage, but we’ve not really linked that to the benefits it can bring to the city or to workers and their families in a succinct way,” says Reverend Ricky Burgess, the committee’s architect and lone representative from city council. “What I want to do is provide some data.”
In addition to testimony from economists and poverty experts, the data will likely come first-hand from low-wage workers themselves — people like Justin Sheldon, 34. He’s one of 62,000 people who work at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the largest private employer in Pennsylvania, and by far, the largest employer of any kind in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.
Medical residents at the hospitals tend to earn over $50,000 a year, according to the employee review site Glassdoor. But the more than 10,000 service workers — the people who staff cafeterias, transport patients and sterilize equipment, among other things — earn substantially less. They make an average of $12.81 an hour, UPMC said last year. The health care provider did not respond to request for comment.
“My reason [for supporting $15] is pretty simple,” says Sheldon, a housekeeper at the UPMC Presbyterian hospital. “I want to be able to support my family — properly.”
Sheldon makes $12.52 an hour and works 48 hours a week, cleaning doctor’s offices, conference rooms and restrooms. He says he can barely pay the bills for his household, which includes two young children, ages six and four. His wife is visually impaired and receives Social Security disability payments, about $700 a month, he says. They pay $600 a month to rent a house in McKees Rocks, a blue-collar community that overlooks the Ohio River.
“Anything I save up usually ends up getting used” he says. Within a week of the next paycheck, “I’m usually down to $30 or less.”