Hopkins hospital workers authorize strike

Two thousand Johns Hopkins Hospital workers are set to go on strike at 6 a.m. Wednesday , after the hospital offered a wage proposal Tuesday that the union rejected as inadequate.

The union decided Tuesday on a three-day strike after rejecting what it was told was the hospital's "last, best, final" offer, said union spokesman Jim McNeill.

"There was so little movement," McNeill said. The bargaining committee saw the new offer as "so weak" that it decided to strike, McNeill said.

"Well over 90 percent" of the union's members voted to reject Monday's offer, and the bargaining committee rejected the new offer during negotiations Tuesday, according to McNeill.

The workers are members of labor union 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and are seeking a wage increase of as much as 40 percent for some employees.

Union officials say many of the workers live in poverty and rely on public assistance because they make so little. The starting pay of workers represented by the union ranges from $10.71 to $27.88 per hour, depending on the job, according to Hopkins officials.

The union's latest proposal asked for a $15 minimum wage for workers with at least 15 years of experience in the first year of their proposed four-year contract. Every Hopkins worker would earn at least $14 an hour by the end of the four-year contract. The union initially pushed for a $15-an-hour "living wage" for all workers with four years of service.

"We think Hopkins should take better care of its employees," said John Reid, executive vice president of the union, which represents Maryland and Washington, D.C. "They have too many workers that have made the difficult decision between paying the rent and buying groceries."

Hopkins officials have not publicly discussed their contract proposals but have said they are trying to reach a settlement that's fair to everyone and reflects financial responsibility on the part of the hospital. The hospital has also said it will not negotiate through the news media and hopes to reach an agreement.

"We are hopeful that continued good faith efforts toward negotiating will result in a contract that all parties feel is fair and equitable," Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said in a statement.

Union representatives said Hopkins presented them with a five-year contract that provides annual raises no higher than 2percent and a minimum wage of $12.25 an hour or less by the end of the contract. The hospital's offer would leave many Hopkins workers well below the $14.92-an-hour wage that qualifies a single parent and child for food stamps, union officials said.

Hoppe emphasized that the union employees — who include housekeepers, those who cook patients' meals and those who assist nurses and transport patients throughout the hospital — are not involved in direct patient care. Contingency staffing plans are in place to "assure no disruptions" to patients, she said.

"We want to assure our patients and their families that we are conducting business as usual at the Johns Hopkins Hospital," Hoppe said.

Union officials argue that the union's members are crucial to the hospital's inner workings and patient safety. It is important to have a sanitary hospital to prevent the spread of germs, they say.

"They set the stage for the work that needs to be done, said Armeta Dixon, the union's vice president for Baltimore hospitals and health systems. "All the people are completely essential to what needs to be done in a hospital."

Some union members said Hopkins doesn't seem to appreciate their work.

As a support associate, Melvinna Alford cleans rooms, assists nurses and transports patients throughout the hospital. The 38-year-old Baltimore resident earned $7.25 an hour when she started at the hospital 15 years ago and now makes just above $13 an hour.

Alford said the salary is not enough to support three of her children, who are on CHIP, the state Medicaid program for children. She also has an adult child.

"What we are asking for is pennies compared to what they have," Alford said. "We just want to be able to take care of our families."

More than 40 percent of Hopkins workers with at least 15 years of service make less than $14.92 an hour, according to the union.

According to the union, the hospital said the union proposal is unaffordable because it includes 40 percent raises.

Union leaders said that only 20 out of 2,000 members — or 1 percent — would get a raise of 40 percent or more. All 20 of those workers make less than $11.47 an hour, the poverty level for a family of four. The median increase for all workers over the life of the union's four-year proposal would be 18 percent.

Union leaders said Hopkins often argues that its wages are competitive for Baltimore. The union believes that the rates paid by Hopkins have the effect of keeping wages low citywide because other employers may look to them as a gauge.

Robert Domulevicz has worked for nearly two decades as a biomedical maintenance mechanic who fixes surgical beds, dental chairs and other equipment at Hopkins. He earns $24 an hour, which he said is less than people in the same position who work directly for the manufacturers of medical products.

Domulevicz said he is concerned about many of his colleagues who make less than he does. He recently dropped one co-worker off at a homeless shelter where she lived.

Domulevicz and other workers said Hopkins boasts about its medical accomplishments, but should be held accountable for its treatment of workers.

"I'm proud to work at Hopkins, but I can't pay BGE with a cup that says 'Hopkins pride,'" he said.\

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.



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