Service Employees, Women’s Rights Groups Battle Large Pittsburgh-Area Hospital Over Hiring Bias

PITTSBURGH —The Service Employees and a coalition of women’s rights groups are battling Pittsburgh’s largest employer, the UPMC Hospital System, over the company’s claim that the federal government has no power to audit it for hiring bias.

The dispute will play out in federal appeals court in D.C., where UPMC (Univer-sity of Pittsburgh Medical Center) challenged the Labor Department’s authority to audit its hiring practices.  UPMC, which employs 55,000 people, had a subcontract with the feds as a source of health services and supplies for Pittsburgh-area federal workers.

That led the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance, the agency that monitors government contractors, to plan to audit UPMC to ensure the hospital system did not discriminate by race or sex.  UPMC wouldn’t even let the feds visit.  The firm’s lawsuit claims they have no right to audit its personnel practices.

The suit is important because it shows business schemes to challenge the government’s leverage – its cash and contracts – to enforce workers’ rights.  If UPMC wins, employers would be free to discriminate.  That would make women and minorities “second class citizens” again, says Veronica Joice of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

The Obama administration is defending the Labor Department agency in court briefs filed late in 2013.  The case will be heard this year.  SEIU, the National Partnership for Women and Families, the NAACP and other groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs supporting the Labor Department’s power to enforce civil rights laws.

“UPMC is not above the law.  It aggressively attacks workers who speak up for their rights, and the federal government has already issued historic complaints against UPMC because of its treatment of workers,” Neal Bisno, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania said after his union filed its brief backing the workers.  “Now, in addition to these attacks, this massive employer is actually seeking to change the rules and evade its role in uplifting all workers, including women and people of color.”

UPMC has mistreated its workers so badly that right around last Labor Day, they took to the streets in protest of both that and its anti-worker attitude towards a long-term SEIU organizing drive there.

“Equal opportunity laws and regulations have been essential in advancing fairness in the workplace for women and people in communities of color for decades,” added National Partnership senior advisor Judith Lichtman.  “Particularly at this time when there is a national mandate to reduce health disparities and improve outcomes, the public and governmental interest in promoting a diverse health care workforce and fighting discrimination could not be more clear.”