By Mike Brigham
I’m currently a cook at UPMC Shadyside, I just came over from the tray line at UPMC Presbyterian. Before COVID, I worked in restaurants and hotels. I have a career as a cook but my other job closed permanently during the pandemic and unemployment ran out, so in the fall I took a tray line job at Presby.
There are a lot of people like me, who came over from the food industry this past year. At first, a lot of us were excited about breaks and benefits, but we all hate it now. Getting benefits is great, but it turns out at UPMC insurance coverage is still really expensive. But I’ll come back to that.
The job at Presby was nice for the first couple months, but it got worse. There is a lot of favoritism with management, so some people just don’t have to do their jobs and it all gets put on new people. I’m also trans, and that that was a major issue there.
People should not have to wear uniforms that don’t fit their gender and make them uncomfortable — they actually issue different men’s and women’s uniforms. And people should be called by their name at work. My supervisors told me they would not advise my coworkers to use my name and pronouns, and said I’d have to explain that myself. I shouldn’t have to teach everyone I work with how to interact with trans people. I shouldn’t have to give up my lunch break to validate my existence or stay late to explain what trans people are and argue with co-workers.
Trans issues are an area where UPMC really needs to improve. They have a powerpoint on diversity that includes a slide on how to not misgender patients, which is great, but there is nothing on co-workers. I complained at my 30-day review that I was being asked to explain why I use the pronouns I use.
I’m relieved that I’m out of that environment now. There are probably people who work at Presby who stay in the closet there because of it. It doesn’t matter how well you do your job if people don’t respect you for who you are. It really matters. I once stayed at a job for two years even though the executive chef was really mean, just because he wouldn’t tolerate any kind of racism or bigotry in the kitchen.
And it’s a super easy thing to call people by their name and pronouns. UPMC talks about acceptance, and the insurance supposedly covers transitioning, but when I tried to use it, it turns out it’s really expensive. My friends with Medicaid pay significantly less than I do. And it’s tough to search for a gynecologist that’s trans-competent. That’s an everywhere issue. But the UPMC network is particularly difficult to navigate for that. So I went to Planned Parenthood — it was easier to get an appointment and I knew I’d be accepted. Even then, my insurance made me wait five weeks to pick up my prescription for testosterone, because despite how accepting and supportive UPMC claims to be, their insurance really likes to drag their feet for hormone replacement therapy.
Shadyside has been a big improvement, mainly because of supportive co-workers. My new chef at Shadyside reached out to the diversity and inclusion office on my behalf and got me a new badge, which is awesome. One week at Shadyside and I’m doing much better. But future employees at Presby should know; I heard they won awards for humanitarian type stuff, but they definitely don’t treat trans people well.
And at Shadyside I can work as a cook. It’s a 4:00 AM — 12:30 PM shift. When I show up, I get a prep list of things that have to be done by 9:30, when the cart leaves. I make sandwiches and salads and wraps, and after the cart goes, the cooks make everyone lunch and the next two hours you prep. And if you can get ahead on the next day’s work or help other people with their lists, you do that. It’s a pretty cooperative environment, they make sure no one is left behind and struggling. And I just like the everyday work. Today I cut 3 cases of cucumbers — it’s fun.
Still, there are issues. It should definitely pay better. The pay isn’t high enough for me to drive and park in the UPMC garage. It’s ridiculous in the first place that UPMC employees have to pay UPMC to park in the garage. So I can’t drive to work. If you’re going to work in an expensive area you should be paid enough to be able to live closer than an hour away and have to pay for the commute in time and money.
I’ve been in Pittsburgh for seven years this summer. I grew up in Somerset, a typical backwards conservative town. I fled to Pittsburgh as soon as possible because there are more than two other queer people here. It’s still a conservative city in other ways though. Peduto is technically a Democrat but he’s a conservative. I’ve heard good things about Gainey though. But right now it’s not a very livable city for people of color, and it’s not the most livable city for queer people either. Unless you’re a rich gay male maybe. We have gay bars and we have some community stuff though, so it’s better than where I grew up. And the local LGBT+ community does its best with what it has to work with in Pittsburgh. The People’s Pride in 2019 was amazing and I’m excited to see them gain momentum and put on a fully inclusive and diverse pride once it’s safe again.
I decided I wanted to get into decorative baking as a kid watching Cake Boss on TV, so I got a degree in pastry baking. I got my first job as a cook when I was in culinary school, and I ended up moving over to cooking from baking. Pittsburgh is a meat and potatoes kind of city — dessert here is 3,000 basic cookies, so there aren’t many opportunities for fancy baking. I mean even people in Pittsburgh who can afford over-the-top, creative desserts still generally prefer to stick to easily-recognizable basics. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t make for a very exciting career in desserts. Being a cook I’ve learned a lot about the different vegetables, meats, and cheeses that exist, so it’s more interesting. I especially enjoy working events; I like all that goes into feeding large groups of people. Especially the more delicate parts you can’t prep in advance but have to make happen in the moment.
Anyway then there was a pandemic, and now I’m here. A lot of people who lost their jobs in the pandemic ended up at UPMC because they’re the big employer, but look how we’re treated. I know I’m a good worker, and it shows. But we’re not here because we want to be, we’re here to put roofs over our heads. Managers love having restaurant people there, but I feel like they benefit from us being stuck.
I definitely support having a union. I briefly worked at the post office, and their union helps them a lot. If there was ever an issue, before any disciplinary action is taken, you would talk to your union rep and you have someone there to protect you. I learned about all the awesome things unions can do. During COVID, when UPMC was handling it so poorly, I started looking into what a union could do for us. If there was more organization we would be able to push back. Because UPMC has some okay policies, but policies don’t mean shit without proper enforcement.