Some Johns Hopkins nurses trying to unionize

Some nurses at the Johns Hopkins Hospital are attempting to form a union, saying that they are overworked and underpaid compared to their counterparts at other hospitals.

They also argue that a shortage of nurses is putting patient care at risk.

The nurses are working with National Nurses United to gain enough supporters to bring the idea of forming a union to a vote. They need the majority of the hospital’s 3,200 nurses to sign cards expressing their interest to hold a vote supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

“The hospital is a world-renowned hospital, but the turnover is high because of short-staffing and because of continued takeaways in benefits,” said Corey Lanham, the union’s collective bargaining director for the Mid-Atlantic Region.

Johns Hopkins declined to talk in detail about the organizing.

“At The Johns Hopkins Hospital, the nurses are critical to providing world-class care to our patients and their families, and we are committed to maintaining our longstanding culture of collaboration and open communication with them and with all of our employees,” the hospital said in a statement. “While there apparently has been limited contact by a California labor union with some of our nurses, our focus remains on our patients, employees and community."

The nurses’ push for a union at Johns Hopkins is unusual in Maryland, where few nurses are represented by a union.

While it is not uncommon for service workers at hospitals to be unionized, it’s not typical for care workers such as doctors, nurses and others in the professional ranks. According to Nurse.org, an online career site for nurses, just 18 percent of nurses nationwide are unionized.

But this is changing as the pressure increases for hospitals to cut costs and professional employees are seeking labor protections.

Doctors, nurses and mental health professionals at Chase Brexton Health Services in Baltimore approved their first union contract last month. Workers there had complained about not having enough time to spend with patients. The employees sought more say in the decision-making process at the chain of community health centers as they faced heavy patient loads and what some feared was a resulting decline in the quality of patient care.

Those wishing to organize the Hopkins nurses cited anecdotal evidence that the hospital pays its nurses less than others in the region. The hospital won’t give them salary data and is not required to do so.

The mean hourly wage of a nurse in Baltimore is $36.43 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Keith Fischer, an emergency room nurse who has worked at Hopkins for five years, said he makes $33 an hour. Health benefits for Hopkins nurses also have been cut in recent years, he said.

He and other nurses said that people willingly accept the tradeoff of the lower salary for the prestige of working at one of the world’s top hospitals.There are also many training opportunities.

But such perks are often only enough to keep some nurses at the hospital for a few years before they seek higher-paying opportunities.

“We need to compensate nurses so that we can retain them,” Fischer said.

The high turnover means there are fewer experienced nurses, posing a safety risk, Fischer said.

A shortage of nurses is also an issue, he said.

Kate Phillips, an ICU nurse who has worked at Hopkins for two years, said that nurses in her department have to cover each other’s patients when they take lunch breaks. Instead of two patients on their watch, nurses have four, which Phillips said could put care at risk.

“Every nurse here has talked about times where he or she felt unsafe because there was not enough staffing, not enough equipment or medicines came late because there were not enough pharmacy techs to mix the medicines,” Phillips said.

Phillips and Fischer said they also hope that unionizing will give them more of a say in hospital practices.

“When we don’t have a voice or a way to stand up to the administration, they can basically make all the decisions and they don’t look at things from the perspective of patient care like we do,” Phillips said.

The hospital has faced other recent labor unrest. In 2014, service workers there held a four-day strike after contract negotiations broke down. After more talks, Johns Hopkins agreed to give raises to its then roughly 2,100 service workers and gradually boost the minimum wage of longtime employees to $15 an hour.

The nurses and union organizers do not have a timeline for when they hope to gather enough signatures for a unionization vote, Lanham said. The nurses had been organizing quietly, but took their effort public Monday, passing out information pamphlets to nurses.

Phillips said Fischer said there has been some pushback from managers who they say have spread misinformation about the union.

While Johns Hopkins characterized National Nurses United as a California union, the Silver Spring-based union claims more than 150,000 members in every state and calls itself the nation’s largest union and professional association of registered nurses. It was founded in 2009 through the combination of the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee, United American Nurses and Massachusetts Nurses Association.

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

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