15 million reasons for Hopkins fight [Commentary]

Editor's note: This op-ed has been updated from an earlier version to reflect developments. 

On Friday, I and 2,000 of my co-workers at Johns Hopkins Hospital were scheduled to go on strike for the second time in two months. It's not a step we wanted to take, but one we felt we had to take. But late yesterday, our union president and Hopkins management agreed to a one-week cooling off period at Gov. Martin O'Malley's request. We hope that time will make a difference.

For almost four months, we've been in talks with Hopkins management for a contract that would end poverty pay at our world-renowned hospital. But the hospital's latest offer would still leave many of Hopkins' service, maintenance and technical workers relying on food stamps, Medicaid and other government aid to get by.

Right now, nearly 70 percent of the Hopkins caregivers in our union, 1199SEIU, make less than $14.92 an hour. That's the wage that qualifies a single parent and child for food stamps. If Hopkins Health System — the city's second-largest employer — can get away with paying so little, how can any worker in Baltimore get ahead?

I've worked at Hopkins for 19 years, and I make just $12.97 an hour. And my modest paycheck looked even smaller when I saw what Hopkins Hospital and Health System President Ronald R. Peterson made last year: $15.4 million in total compensation. I'd be upset to see any CEO making that much, but to see the leader of a nonprofit hospital raking in that kind of cash is just not right. Hopkins has tried to excuse President Peterson's huge pay package by saying it includes pension benefits and a one-time retirement payout based on years of service.

But I'm 62 years old, and I'll be retiring soon, and my pension won't look anything like that. In fact, a Hopkins worker like me who retired at 65 with 25 years of service would get an annual pension of roughly $9,500 a year.

Now, we're not asking to be paid like CEOs. We're just saying CEOs shouldn't make all the money. In fact, the current contract proposal we have on the table would add a total of $11.2 million to the hospital's payroll costs over the next four-and-a-half years. That means President Peterson could pay for all the increases we're asking for out of his 2013 compensation and still have $4.2 million left over.

Hopkins pays President Peterson at a rate that's better than the top execs at the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic and Partners HealthCare in Boston — the other top hospital systems in America that Hopkins likes to compare itself to. Even in 2012, when President Peterson made "just" $3.5 million, that was at least $300,000 more than the next highest-paid CEO at those three hospitals.

Yet while Hopkins is paying President Peterson top dollar, it pays many of us far below what workers make at other top U.S. hospitals. Our union did a study of workers' wages in 2012 at 35 leading teaching hospitals and at the 18 hospitals on U.S. News & World Report's Honor Roll of best hospitals in 2013-2014. The study found that, on average, housekeepers at Hopkins like me made $3.88 less per hour than our peers at the top U.S. News & World Report hospitals. We made $4.26 less per hour than housekeepers at the teaching hospitals.

That said, I'm proud of the work I do at Hopkins. I'm an area cleaner at the Wilmer Eye Institute. I disinfect the clinical areas, I do the high dusting and the low dusting, and that only begins to describe what workers like me do. We come into contact with people all day. We help them get where they need to go and comfort them when they're feeling down. We put our hearts, our minds and our souls into what we do.

And for that work, all we ask for is fair pay. We're asking that workers who've been at Hopkins for 15 years or more make at least $15 an hour by 2015. Fast-food workers across America are asking for that, so we think America's No. 1 hospital should be able to do at least as well. We also think first-year workers should be making at least $14 an hour by the end of our contract in 2018. Instead, Hopkins is unwilling to establish a minimum wage higher than $12.25 an hour.

The founder of our hospital, Johns Hopkins, told his first trustees to use their "good judgment and experience in life … to make this charity a substantial benefit to the community." But somewhere along the line, it seems the good judgment of the hospital's leaders has become clouded.

We hope our work in bargaining has helped open their eyes, and that the big news in the next few days will be that Hopkins has worked with us to settle a contract that ends poverty pay at the hospital. But if not, we will keep fighting to ensure that Hopkins finally fulfills the vision of its founder and makes the hospital a benefit, not a burden, to the community.

Yvonne Brown is an area cleaner at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a member of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. Her email is Yvonne.Brown@HardshipAtHopkins.org.

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