Wolf criticizes UPMC wages; health giant suggests union motivations
HARRISBURG — UPMC’s treatment of its employees “doesn’t give you a warm and fuzzy feeling” as the salaries and benefits of its frontline workers lag, Gov. Tom Wolf said Monday.
“I would not be treating my employees the way they treat theirs,” Wolf said in an interview with the Tribune-Review.
He provided no figures for UPMC salaries. He said he heard “anecdotal stories” in the 2014 campaign from UPMC workers that “they couldn’t even afford their own benefits.”
Wolf did not specify whether he believes UPMC should be unionized but said the Downtown-based nonprofit “should treat their employees better.”
Still, the governor said his main point is to make sure seniors can keep seeing their own doctors. UPMC said last week that it would cut off a longstanding Medicare Advantage contract with rival Highmark Health on Jan. 1.
The state Office of Attorney General is “reviewing our options if the parties do not resolve their differences,” the office said in a statement Monday.
Wolf’s comments follow assertions from UPMC and a top Republican senator, Joe Scarnati of Jefferson County, that the administration’s close ties to the Service Employees International Union make it biased against the health care giant.
The SEIU has tried for years to organize thousands of workers at UPMC, the largest nongovernmental employer in Pennsylvania.
UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said Wolf’s comments seem to come “straight out of SEIU’s playbook.”
Wood said Katie McGinty, the chief of staff for Wolf, called UPMC Executive Vice President W. Thomas McGough Jr. on Jan. 8 and suggested “we let the SEIU unilaterally organize our employees.”
“We said no,” Wood said. “That’s not what the vast majority of our employees want.”
He said the SEIU could represent UPMC workers if the union wins an election.
Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan confirmed that McGinty called McGough before the governor’s Jan. 20 inauguration, but Sheridan had a different account.
“Katie did place a call to (McGough) to say it would be nice for the governor starting a new term to sit down with UPMC,” Sheridan said. “But at absolutely no time did Katie McGinty tell him SEIU should be allowed to organize.”
Sheridan said worker complaints about UPMC were headed for a labor relations board about the same time.
“Did labor complaints come up (in the call)? Yeah. She didn’t say SEIU should organize,” Sheridan said.
Wood maintained Wolf was “totally uninformed” about compensation at UPMC. Its service workers start at $11.28 an hour, then receive an automatic raise of 50 cents an hour after six months, according to the hospital system.
Wood said the average starting rate at non-UPMC hospitals in Western Pennsylvania is $9.48 an hour. He said UPMC workers — excluding executives and physicians — make wages that top $61,000 a year on average, plus receive about $15,000 in annual benefits.
Wolf said he was comparing UPMC’s practices with those of his own furniture distribution company. After Wolf sold the company, then bought it back, the first thing he did was to raise workers’ salaries and freeze executive salaries, he said.
At his non-union company, the Wolf Organization in York, “we had a fairly tight rate between the highest point (in pay) and the average.”
“Their ratio (at UPMC) is much larger,” Wolf said.
UPMC has said it had no choice but to discontinue the Medicare Advantage with Highmark because the insurer is falling short on payments for cancer care.
Highmark has said UPMC is overbilling.
Either way, UPMC’s move means about 182,000 seniors in Western Pennsylvania will have to change insurance providers during an enrollment period if they want to retain in-network access to UPMC hospitals and doctors in 2016. Open enrollment begins Oct. 15.
Wolf last week said that it was “simply unacceptable” for UPMC to back out of the contract, which he called a violation of a consent decree that UPMC and Highmark signed last summer. He vowed to pursue every avenue to fight the decision.
Asked about the appearance that he was trying to open the door for the SEIU at UPMC, Wolf brushed off the suggestion. One of his top aides worked for the SEIU, and a Commonwealth Foundation analysis found the union contributed nearly $1 million to Wolf’s gubernatorial campaign.
“My biggest donor was me — by 10 times more than SEIU,” said Wolf, who gave $10 million to his own campaign. “So I guess I am even more beholden to myself.”
Brad Bumsted and Adam Smeltz are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Bumsted at 717-514-1032 or email@example.com.
Reach Smeltz at 412-380-5676 or firstname.lastname@example.org.