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Union wants hospitals to disclose employees on public assistance

The union fighting to improve service worker wages at Johns Hopkins Hospital has proposed to a state panel that it require hospitals to disclose whether their workers receive food stamps or other public assistance when reporting what benefit the institutions provide to the community.

The 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East labor union, which says some of its members make so little they must turn to government programs, submitted the request to the Health Services Cost Review Commission, the state panel that sets the rates hospitals charge for services and tracks their financial performance.

As part of their nonprofit status, hospitals must report to the commission what public health benefit and charity care they provide.

The labor union said the benefit figures hospitals report are not accurate.

Underpaying their workers, the union said, makes the hospitals depend on government assistance programs such as Medicaid to supplement their workers' compensation.

The issue arose as the union has been pushing for a $15 minimum wage for workers with at least 15 years of experience in the first year of a proposed four-year contract, with every Hopkins worker earning at least $14 an hour by the end of the contract. Workers now make between $10.71 and $27.88 per hour, depending on their jobs.

The current contract expired, and the talks for a new one are at an impasse. Workers went on strike for three days in April and held a large march on Mother's Day weekend to draw attention to the issue.

Hopkins has not spoken publicly about its wage proposal, but members of the union bargaining committee have said the hospital offered a five-year contract with annual raises no higher than 2 percent and a minimum wage of $12.25 an hour.

"The information about employees at Johns Hopkins Hospital being paid so little that many use public assistance spurred us to take a look at the actual community benefit that these nonprofit hospitals say they are providing," John Reid, executive vice president of the Maryland-D.C. region of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, said in a statement. "This issue of community benefit and how it is being reported impacts the entire city and state."

Hopkins said in a statement that it is in "full compliance" with the guidelines established by the rate-setting commission.

"As the health care landscape in Maryland and across the country continues to shift, we remain committed to transparency and accountability, in addition to first-rate patient care," the hospital said in a statement.

The HSCRC received the proposal from the union Wednesday morning, and Steve Ports, deputy director of policy and operations, said the group "would like to have a conversation around the issues raised by the SEIU."

The current reporting requirement models the one the Internal Revenue Service uses for nonprofits, Ports said. Maryland has a different rate-setting system than other states and its requirements account for some of the differences, such as the state's inclusion of uncompensated care and graduate medical education in rates.

"What is being proposed is different than that and will involve resources and expertise that the commission currently does not have," Ports said.

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ankwalker

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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