Monday marked Nila Payton’s 17th anniversary as a UPMC employee. She began her stint with the health care giant the day after the Steelers defeated the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL.
Monday night, however, she wasn’t celebrating. Instead, she prepared for a trip to Washington, D.C. Tuesday she’ll be at the U.S. Capitol as the guest of Rep. Summer Lee, who represents the state’s 12th District, at President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. Lee’s invitation was in recognition of Payne’s yearslong effort to form a union at the health care giant.
“That’s my celebration,” said Payton, who works as an administrative assistant in UPMC’s pathology department.
An organizer for Western Pennsylvania’s Hospital Workers Rising, Payton is one of two local union activists who’ll be attending the event. James VanLandingham, on strike with more than 100 of his co-workers at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, will be there as the guest of Lee’s freshman counterpart, U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, who represents the 17th district.
“I’ve been proud to fight alongside Nila Payton since my days as a state House rep and it’s been a privilege to stand in solidarity with the movement she has built organizing for livable wages, safe conditions, and collective bargaining power for all Pittsburgh hospital workers,” Lee said in a news release. “The state of our union is strong because of the strength of workers like Nila, and my fight for our workers in Congress has only just begun.”
Lee and state Rep. Sara Innamorato, who represents District 21, held a news conference in January with the release of a report with the American Economic Liberties Project detailing the harms of UPMC’s power over hospital workers and patients in the Pittsburgh area. Payton was one of the speakers.
Health care is a big issue for workers like Payton. In the past few years, she’s been hammered by health care bills and now owes her employer, who also functions as her insurer and medical care provider, an estimated $4,000.
She’s not the only UPMC employee in this situation. Payton, 42, is “one of countless UPMC employees who have become hundreds and thousands of dollars in medical debt to UPMC,” a statement from Lee’s office said.
Payton lives in Pittsburgh’s East Hills neighborhood with her husband and two of her three sons. Her youngest child, born in June 2018, spent the first week and a half of his life in a neonatal intensive care unit. “It was a scary situation,” Payton said, which was made more stressful when she was billed for every day of her son’s treatment.
Weeks later, Payton began suffering abdominal pains. “It got so bad at one point that I called 911,” she said. “That’s when I discovered I had a gallbladder attack.”
She underwent surgery, and a short time later her second son, then 4 years old, busted his lip while playing and ended up in the emergency room. Medical bills continued to pile up.
“I shouldn’t be in debt to my employer,” Payton said. “No worker who works 40 hours a week should be in debt to their employer.”
Payton joined the organizing effort at UPMC in 2015. Since then, she’s become a frequent speaker on the topic. In 2019, she stood before thousands attending a Bernie Sanders rally in Oakland and discussed her and her co-workers’ battle to get UPMC to increase wages and allow workers to unionize, then traveled to Los Angeles for an SEIU Unions for All Summit.
In 2020 she traveled to Italy to speak with union workers and organizers there, and less than two weeks ago stood with striking Post-Gazette workers on the steps of the City-County Building and told a gathered crowd of union supporters, “whether you are a news reporter or a patient transporter, we have to stand up for ourselves, we have to stand up for our rights.”
While in the nation’s capital, Payne hopes to convert more political leaders into allies “who aren’t just about lip service but who will come to our city, see what great city we have, have them stand with us, march with us, talk with us.
“I just want to keep speaking out about the fight to get a union at UPMC and fighting for all workers,” she said Monday night. “We need the right to form unions. I’ve been doing this stuff for a long time, and I’m not even in a union yet.”
The Union Progress’ Bob Batz Jr. contributed.
Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.