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Wage war brews at Johns Hopkins Hospital

About 2,000 workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital have threatened to strike if the hospital does not agree to a wage increase of as much as 40 percent for some employees.

A union representing the hospital's service and maintenance workers, including housekeepers and those who deliver food to patients, requested the increase because it said many of the workers rely on government assistance programs such as food stamps and Medicaid to support their families.

The contract with the workers, members of labor union 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, was set to expire at midnight Monday, and the two sides continued to negotiate late into the evening.

The workers voted last week to take action, including a possible strike, if Hopkins does not make "significant movement," union officials said.

Hopkins declined to discuss details of the negotiations, which have been continuing for several weeks.

"We are negotiating in good faith, working to reach a settlement that's fair to everyone and reflects financial responsibility on the part of the hospital," Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said in a statement. "Out of respect for our employees and their labor union, we are negotiating directly with them and not through the media."

The union's bargaining committee is seeking what it called a "fair wage" of at least $15 an hour. It said starting pay is as low as $10.71 an hour at Hopkins. Nearly half of caregivers at the country's top hospital with more than 15 years experience make less than $15 an hour, the union said.

"Hopkins is No. 1, and they have to act No. 1 on wages and benefits, just as they are No.1 in all aspects of health care," said Armeta Dixon, the union's vice president for Baltimore hospitals and health systems.

Union officials said Hopkins proposed across-the-board raises of 1 percent in each of the first two years of the contract.

Hoppe said in an email that Hopkins came to a wage agreement with the union last year. The starting salary of the workers represented by the union ranges from $10.71 to $27.88 per hour depending on the job, she said. Employees receive raises after 90 days and after a year, and also receive a "generous benefit package," Hoppe said. She did not disclose the amount of those step raises that workers get.

Union leaders counter that many workers can't afford to put their families on their health insurance, so they end up on state programs.

Very few workers fall at the higher end of those wage numbers, union officials also said. Most, like Yvonne Brown, make much less.

Brown said Hopkins is not paying her enough. A housekeeper who said she has worked at Hopkins for more than 18 years, the 62-year-old has a hard time paying all of her bills on her $12.97 an hour salary. She said she sometimes pays some bills late to make her rent and has had to get assistance from a nonprofit to pay her utility bill.

Hopkins offers emergency loans, she said, but then she ends up in debt to her employer. She wonders if she'll ever have enough money to retire.

"It's hard for me to make ends meet," Brown said. "It's a struggle. We work hard for that little bit that they pay, and sometimes it can be stressful physically and mentally."

Striking could prove risky for workers in such a competitive job market with stagnant wages, said Paul Harrington, an economist with the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University. Hospitals have complained about narrow margins and the way a changing health care system is threatening revenue. Some already have resorted to layoffs and downsizing departments.

Hopkins might find it easy to find replacement workers, especially for such low-skilled jobs, Harrington said.

"There are lots and lots of people who could do these jobs and would take these jobs at the prevailing wage," he said.

But Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, said that workers deserve a fair wage, particularly if executives get raises. The annual base salary for Ronald R. Peterson, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, and executive vice president of Johns Hopkins Medicine, increased about $49,500 to $1.1 million in fiscal 2012.

Hospital strikes tend not to last long because of concerns about patient care, but can be a good way to prove a point to bosses, Eisenbrey said.

"They signify that workers are really upset and that can get management's attention," Eisenbrey said.

The wage dispute at Hopkins comes as Gov. Martin O'Malley has made it a priority to raise the state's $7.25-an-hour minimum wage to $10.10 in the General Assembly.

Union leaders said Hopkins often argues its wages are competitive for Baltimore.

"Their wages are substandard," said John Reid, the union's executive vice president. "We say the wage base in Baltimore is low, and Hopkins leads the way."

Workers and union leaders said they would prefer not to strike but are willing to if it means better pay.

"No one wants to go on strike, but if I have to, I will," Brown said. "They have been nickel-and-diming me and a whole lot of us for too long."

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