- A nurse is suing the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for allegedly leveraging its monopoly control over the employment market in Pennsylvania to keep wages down and prevent workers from leaving for competitors, all while increasing their workload.
- The lawsuit, filed late last week in a federal court, seeks class action status to represent other staff at the nonprofit health system. Plaintiff Victoria Ross, who worked as a nurse at UPMC Hamot in Erie, Pennsylvania, seeks damages and is asking the judge to enjoin UPMC from continuing its unfair business practices.
- If granted class action status, the lawsuit could represent thousands of current and former UPMC workers, including registered nurses, medical assistants and orderlies. UPMC has denied the allegations in statements to other outlets but did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication.
UPMC has grown steadily over the past few decades into the largest private employer in Pennsylvania, employing 95,000 workers overall.
From 1996 to 2018, the system acquired 28 competing healthcare providers, greatly expanding its market power, according to the lawsuit. The acquisitions also shrunk the availability of healthcare services. Over the same period, UPMC closed four hospitals and downsized operations in three other facilities, eliminating 1,800 full- and part-time jobs, the lawsuit said.
UPMC relied on “draconian” mobility restrictions and labor law violations to lock employees into lower pay and subcompetitive working conditions, according to the 44-page complaint.
Specifically, the system enacted restraints like noncompete clauses and “do-not-rehire blacklists” to stop workers from leaving. Meanwhile, UPMC allegedly suppressed workers’ labor law rights to prevent them from unionizing.
“Each of these restraints alone is anticompetitive, but combined, their effects are magnified. UPMC wielded these restraints together as a systemic strategy to suppress worker bargaining power and wages,” the lawsuit said. “As a result, UPMC’s skilled healthcare workers were required to do more while earning less — while they were also subjected to increasingly unfair and coercive workplace conditions.”
According to the complaint, UPMC has faced 133 unfair labor practice charges since 2012, and 159 separate allegations. Roughly 74% of the violations were related to workers’ efforts to unionize, the lawsuit said.
Meanwhile, UPMC workers’ wages have fallen at a rate of 30 to 57 cents per hour on average compared to other hospital workers for every 10% increase in UPMC’s market share, said the lawsuit, citing a consultant’s economic analysis.
The lawsuit also noted that UPMC’s staffing ratios have been decreasing, even as staffing ratios on average have increased at other Pennsylvania hospitals.
The alleged labor abuses and UPMC’s market power are linked, according to the complaint.
“Had UPMC been subject to competitive market forces, it would have had to raise wages to attract more workers and provide higher staffing levels in order to avoid degrading the care it provided to its patients, and in order to prevent losing patients to competitors who could provide better quality care,” the lawsuit said.
UPMC is facing similar labor allegations. In May, two unions filed a complaint asking the Department of Justice to investigate labor abuses at the nonprofit.
Hospitals were plagued by staffing shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many facilities still bemoan the difficulty of hiring and retaining full-time workers, and point to shortages (of nurses in particular) as the reason for overworked employees and poor staffing ratios.
Yet some studies suggest that’s not the case. One recent analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data found employment in hospitals — including registered nurses — is now slightly higher than it was at the start of the pandemic.
Despite the controversy, UPMC — which now operates 40 hospitals with annual revenue of $26 billion — continues to try and expand its market share. Late last year, the system signed a definitive agreement to acquire Washington Health Care Services, a Pennsylvania system with more than 2,000 employees and two hospitals. The deal faces pushback from local unions.