Many held signs reading "End Poverty Pay at Johns Hopkins Hospital." Some repeated union rally chants. Others brought their children and family for support. All gathered Saturday at the Inner Harbor to demand better wages and benefits from the world-renowned hospital.
About 2,000 Hopkins employees participated in the Mothers' March & Rally for Justice at Johns Hopkins. Several dozen tour buses filled with at least 1,000 supporters from New York, New Jersey and Washington joined the effort. Actors Danny Glover and Wendell Pierce of "The Wire" were among prominent supporters.
The rally comes amid tense contract talks to raise pay at Hopkins. Workers there say they earn so little that some rely on food stamps.
"Hopkins should be ashamed," said Bob Domulevicz, a clinical engineer who has worked at Hopkins for 19 years. "What they are offering us now — 15- and 20-cent raises — are like what I got in the '70s."
1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the union representing hospital workers, claims that nearly 70 percent of workers at Hopkins Hospital would qualify for food stamps if they were the sole earner in a household with one or more child; and that 25 percent make a wage below the poverty level for a family of four. The group has been in negotiations with hospital management for a contract that would establish a $15-an-hour fair-wage standard.
Pamela Paulk, senior vice president for human relations for the Johns Hopkins Health System, said that workers there are already paid at a starting wage higher than the recently approved state minimum wage increase. The law gradually increases the minimum wage until it reaches $10.10 in 2018.
Paulk also pointed out that all employees are eligible to receive assistance in educational programs.
"We've got great stories about people who have completely bettered their circumstances by taking advantage of the programs," she said.
Paulk also said that Hopkins management was "looking forward to getting to the table and meeting face to face and reaching an agreement."
While Domulevicz acknowledged that he is on the higher scale of pay of his co-workers at Hopkins — $24 an hour — he said that he was still paid $6 less than his counterparts elsewhere.
"Some of my co-workers can't take care of their families," he said. "When you hear about co-workers sleeping on the floors of family members' homes, that's not right."
Tiva Robbins, a single mother of two who is a union representative at Hopkins, addressed the sea of supporters. She told a tale of hardship and struggle, including having her electricity turned off, her car repossessed, and being evicted from her apartment.
"My goal is to change the mindset [of Hopkins]," she said.
George Gresham, president of 1199SEIU, said it was "heartwarming" to see people willing to get on buses and support the effort in Baltimore.
"These workers work hard every day. Some have worked there 15 years. Some are the most senior workers," he said. "It is a contradiction for a place with a world-renowned reputation that Johns Hopkins has to pay its employees so little."
Mary Kay Henry, international president of the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, said that the situation at Hopkins ranks among the most serious in the country. Henry's group represents 2.1 million workers in health care, public and property services.
"We want to make sure people can work hard and get ahead," she said.
Pierce, who lived in Baltimore for 10 years working as an actor for such shows as "The Wire," said he has an affinity for Baltimore because it reminds him of his native New Orleans.
"We hope this will set a precedent," he said, adding, "I can't believe that Johns Hopkins made $1.9 billion in revenue and $140 million in profit, yet they can't pay a living wage?"
Denice Dorchak-Ochola, a graduate student in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said she was at the rally to support the workers.
"Management should look at them as partners and treat them as such," she told the crowd while speaking from the stage.
"We can't sit by while you guys get treated like this," she said to a roar of applause from the crowd. "Do better Hopkins so I can carry the Hopkins name with pride."
Dorchak-Ochola wasn't the only student at the rally to express displeasure with the working conditions.
"You've got to pay people a fair wage," said Emily Cortright, also a student at the Bloomberg School. "It doesn't any sense."