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.”
Matt Smith, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, says his group “will monitor the hearings and will review the testimony as it develops a position.”
A Rocky Road Ahead?
Councilman Ricky Burgess says he drew inspiration for the wage committee from New York’s Fast Food Wage Board. Created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo -- under pressure from the Fight for 15 -- that panel recently approved a phased-in $15 minimum wage for fast food workers statewide. “On a smaller scale, this is a replica of that event,” Burgess says.
There are some key differences though.
Thanks to an arcane New Deal era law that allows the executive to mandate sector-specific pay hikes and bypass the state legislature, the findings of New York’s fast food wage board quickly became law. Pittsburgh’s wage committee lacks such authority.
But even more importantly, Pennsylvania bars individual cities from adopting their own minimum wages -- which means any minimum pay increases must come from the state legislature. Burgess hopes the hearings -- by “leveraging political support and goodwill” -- will pressure lawmakers in Harrisburg to consider a wage hike.
“I don’t think it’s just a state issue,” Burgess stresses. “It’s an employer-employee issue. I want everyone to embrace it.”
Labor groups, progressives and some economists have called for a $15 federal minimum wage. So has Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who recently introduced a bill in Congress to that effect.
But the idea has also encountered pushback, including on the political left. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front runner for 2016, has stopped short of backing a proposed $15 nationwide pay floor. The White House, too, has steered clear of $15, preferring a more modest $12 proposal instead. Princeton University economist Alan Krueger, former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, recently penned a critical take in the New York Times.
“Although some high-wage cities and states could probably absorb a $15-an-hour minimum wage with little or no job loss,” he wrote, “it is far from clear that the same could be said for every state, city and town in the United States.”