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Fairness for health care workers

As Baltimore City officials scramble to close a $121 million budget deficit, they seem to face nothing but hard choices.

Tai Watts can relate.

Ms. Watts is a full-time nurse's aide at Baltimore's University Specialty Hospital whose take-home pay is less than $1,500 a month. She grew up in Baltimore, but she worries about finding a safe neighborhood for her 14-year old daughter, so she pays more than $1,000 a month in rent and utilities for an apartment in Essex.

Each month, Ms. Watts and her daughter have less than $500 to cover food, clothing and transportation. Every day they wonder what essentials they'll have to do without. It's one thing to scrape by in a recession, but many Baltimore health care workers like Ms. Watts have been struggling for decades.

Nurse's aides in Baltimore make less than their counterparts in every other major East Coast city. They are two-and-a-half times more likely than other Maryland workers to be on Food Stamps, and more than half of them make so little, their children qualify for the state's low-income health insurance plan.

The economic squeeze on health care workers like Ms. Watts has an impact far beyond their immediate families. In many ways, their financial troubles are at the root of Baltimore's budget woes. That's because health care is now our city's largest industry.

One in five Baltimore jobs is in health care, so when hospitals and nursing homes deny workers a living wage it has a profound effect citywide: Poverty grows, the tax base declines, and neighborhoods fall further into decay. It's impossible for a city to maintain a vibrant middle class when its biggest industry pays poverty wages.

That's why our union, 1199SEIU, launched the Heart of Baltimore campaign, a historic movement of local caregivers to win a voice at work and improve health care — and health care jobs — throughout the city. Today, health care workers truly are the heart of our city, so only when they're doing well can Baltimore prosper.

Local caregivers have tried to unite in unions before, but again and again they've been intimidated and harassed by their employers. Those anti-worker campaigns stifle the voice of caregivers who work most closely with patients, take an institution's focus off patient care and waste health care resources on high-priced attorneys and consultants.

Now, in the Heart of Baltimore campaign, religious leaders, public officials and other community allies are coming together and calling on local health care CEOs to allow free and fair union elections for every hospital and nursing home worker. Last fall, the Baltimore City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on all health care employers to allow secret-ballot union elections. The city council said "we must raise job standards for health care workers" and stressed that "the quality of health care jobs helps determine the economic health of our city."

Already, the members of our union are showing how caregivers and employers can work together to raise health care standards. In partnership with 26 hospitals and nursing homes in Maryland and Washington, D.C., we operate a training fund that allows workers to earn a nurse's aide certificate, take computer classes or enroll in other continuing education courses. Great things happen when employers see their workers as value-added partners, not adversaries to be compensated as poorly as possible.

When Baltimore's health care employers start working together with their employees, we'll be able to break the vicious cycle that's impoverishing caregivers and weakening our city. When we raise the standards of care in our hospitals and nursing homes, we'll help raise living standards all across Baltimore. When health care workers like Tai Watts have a voice, we'll all win.

John Reid is executive vice president of 1199SEIU–United Healthcare Workers East for the Maryland & Washington, D.C. Division. His e-mail is john.reid@theheartofbaltimore.org.

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