Jocelyn Kirkwood, healthcare assistant at Planned Parenthood, poses for a portrait in Downtown Pittsburgh on Fri., July 22 (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).
By Jamie Wiggan
PITTSBURGH — Alyssa Haradzin began working at Planned Parenthood’s Liberty Avenue clinic about four months before a leaked Supreme Court draft opinion warned of a seismic shift coming to the American abortion landscape.
She had previously worked as a healthcare assistant in a general hospital, and took a pay cut to move into reproductive care because she values the work. But she soon felt frustrated by perceived staffing shortages and inadequate training, and joined the organization’s new union chapter to fight for change.
“I was motivated to do this work, in general, because it’s something I believe in strongly,” Haradzin told Pittsburgh City Paper, noting the cancer and STD screenings and other preventative care services the organization provides in addition to abortions.
Since last month’s ruling on Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Haradzin and other organizers say trigger laws restricting abortions in neighboring states have doubled the demand for procedures in Western Pennsylvania, adding substantially to what they already described as an unsustainable workload.
“There is a ton of need now,” Jocelyn Kirkwood, another healthcare assistant and union member at Planned Parenthood’s Downtown location, said. “Right now, if you wanted to get an appointment for an abortion, we’re scheduling for October … If we had adequate staff, we could see more patients.”
Still, the union said it has not yet secured any of the requests they laid out more than a year before this recent surge. Haradzin added that she feels further frustration because she says management did not use the notice given by the leak to make adequate preparations.
“It feels like we are tied to train tracks and we’ve been seeing this train coming from far away and nothing has been done to help us,” she said.
According to documents filed with the National Labor Relations Board, 22 workers from Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania voted to unionize in March 2021. More have reportedly joined since.
In addition to the abortion and family planning clinics in Pittsburgh, the union includes workers at family planning centers and educational offices in Bridgeville, Moon, Greensburg, Johnstown, and Somerset. Part-time and full-time professional staff, including clinicians, physician assistants, registered nurses, and behavioral specialists are all represented.
Although not at the same pace, Kirkwood said calls for effective long-term contraceptives have risen alongside abortions as lower abortion availability begins to factor into family planning decisions.
“There’s been a huge increase in demand for that,” she said.
Pittsburgh area workers are part of a growing national organizing movement within the family planning sector, where the pace has picked up rapidly since the Dobbs ruling.
Last week, more than 400 employees from dozens of Planned Parenthood locations across the Midwest voted in favor of unionizing. Representatives from these groups have reported similar upheaval and spiking demand as conservative states there have restricted abortion access.
Kirkwood said she finds assurance in their shared struggle.
“We are a part of the broader movement,” she said. “We’re connected with all the Planned Parenthoods nationally.”
But here in Pittsburgh, members said progress has been slow despite their head start over many other chapters.
Initially, Kirkwood said, negotiations seemed to be picking up pace after PPWP appointed Sydney Etherege as its new CEO at the end of 2021. But in recent months, she says, that momentum has waned.
Now, “we kind of get the same response which is, ‘we’re working on it,’ but we don’t see a lot of results from that,” Kirkwood added.
Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania declined to comment on details, but a spokesperson told City Paper the organization is “supportive of workers and their right to unionize.”
“PPWP has been working with the union to address issues related to hiring, including increases to the entry-level wage rate,” Sara Dixon, PPWP’s public relations manager, said.
Kirkwood and Haradzin stressed that their efforts are as much about improving their capacity to serve the public as about improving their material conditions. And, ultimately, they say these goals are intertwined.
Since the Dobbs ruling, the Downtown Planned Parenthood clinic has posted two new openings for healthcare assistants, but Haradzin suspects the advertised pay scale might be turning away applicants and slowing the hiring process.
“With the uptick in the number of volunteers we’re seeing, I can’t imagine that there aren’t more people that want to apply or have applied,” Haradzin says. “If anything’s stopping them, it would be the starting wage.”
Downtown’s clinic currently has nine healthcare assistants, but Haradzin says they need 15 to adequately tackle their workload.
Kirkwood said hourly wages for PPWP health care assistants start at $16 an hour, but she says postings at other Pittsburgh area employers often start at $20 an hour or higher.
According to more than 2,000 salaries compiled by Indeed.com, the average base salary for a healthcare assistant in the United States is $19.49 per-hour.
Haradzin said being short-staffed not only presents workload challenges but also adds to the emotional stress of a job that is fundamentally challenging even with the right resources.
“It’s hard to take on other peoples’ stress when you’re worried about your own life, and you’re worried about how you’re going to pay your bills,” she said.
Fifteen months into their negotiating efforts calling for “improvements to our working conditions, better staffing, and a fair contract,” according to a press release, union workers are hoping to speed along the process by rallying public support.
Members organized a July 26 public protest outside the City-County Building, where they planned to inform supporters their ability to provide abortion services hinges on securing better contracts and more staff.
“We want to show [management] that we have this support, we have the community of Pittsburgh behind us — you need to give us this,” Haradzin told City Paper ahead of the rally.
Local officials have voiced broad support for abortion care in Pittsburgh, where abortion remains legal at least for now. City council recently passed a slate of laws upholding abortion protections, with one bill expressly protecting abortion providers from investigations and incriminations from out-of-state prosecutors. Allegheny county council is working on parallel legislation.
In a statement to City Paper prior to the rally, a spokesperson for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said he supported the union’s organizing efforts.
“Mayor Gainey strongly supports the workers of Planned Parenthood, and stands with them in their fight for better wages and staffing levels that will allow them to give the best possible care for their patients,” Gainey’s spokesperson, Maria Montaño, said in a statement. “It is critical now with the influx of patients from across the region that we support the front-line workers providing this critical care, and we are proud to support them and their work.”
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