The tentative contract reached early Tuesday between Johns Hopkins Hospital and the labor union representing about 2,000 of its service workers represents a victory not only for the hospital and members of 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East but for Baltimore. The contract raises wages, in some case dramatically so, allowing Hopkins to set an example of what a "living wage" can mean for the health and security of workers in this city.
It was a hard-fought effort that included a three-day strike in April and, more recently, intervention by Gov. Martin O'Malley to avert another such action. But ultimately, both sides demonstrated a willingness to compromise, and most expect the deal to be ratified by the union's membership over the next few days.
Hopkins remains one of this region's largest private employers and a prestigious, world-class institution that's not only a vital economic engine for Baltimore but an important part of the city's identity. That reputation was in danger of being compromised by a prolonged dispute over wages that in some cases were so low that veteran hospital workers were stuck living below the poverty line and qualified for various forms of government assistance.
The new contract will, according to the union, boost wages as much as 38 percent over its 4.5-year span. Union members with at least 20 years of experience will see an immediate $15-an-hour minimum wage while all will make at least $13 an hour by 2018.
The prospect of a $15-an-hour minimum wage has become something of a mantra for unions in recent months; it was sought by Chicago fast-food workers and recently achieved by Seattle's minimum wage law. But it's probably not a realistic goal for all employers in Maryland — at least not in the near-term or without consequences for unemployment rates.
Hopkins is not just any employer, however, and it was clearly stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the institution has demonstrated a commitment to the health and welfare of the community. On the other, it can't raise costs beyond what it can recover in billings to patients and their insurers — required to grow no more than 3.58 percent annually over the next five years under the state's hospital rate cap.
Nor was it helpful for the medical center's image that the compensation paid its top leader — $15.4 million in the year ending June 30, 2013 to Ronald R. Peterson, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System, with most of it related to retirement benefits — was not only high by the standards of U.S. research hospitals but so out of scale with the $10.71 hourly wage of entry-level janitors, housekeepers and others. The union trumpeted those numbers to great effect, but officials also had a point: Where were the hospital's much-touted values, including its mission to "improve the health of the community"?
The new contract suggests those values were not forgotten. As studies conducted by Johns Hopkins' own researchers have shown, a child born into poverty is unlikely to escape it. It's not enough for a parent to have a job; a decent paycheck is needed to give a child a fighting chance. Johns Hopkins University has been at the vanguard of efforts to improve East Baltimore through charitable work, so why not start with health care workers?
And make no mistake, a few dollars an hour in pay can make a difference in a person's life — not only in improving the health and welfare of families but in generating economic opportunities for whole neighborhoods as those raises are spent on food, housing and other necessities. This is why the contract is good news far beyond Orleans Street and Broadway.
Meanwhile, Hopkins, can look forward to being able to recruit higher quality support workers and to keep them on the job for longer. As The Sun reported on Sunday, a growing number of businesses in retail, food service and other sectors are paying entry level workers well above the minimum wage — a decision they say boosts productivity, reduces turnover and ultimately benefits the bottom line. We hope that other Baltimore medical institutions, as well as other employers, will see value in following suit. As was observed during the debate over a $10.10 statewide minimum wage, a measure signed into law by Governor O'Malley two months ago, raising basic compensation to a more realistic standard can be good for workers and employers alike, reducing dependence on public assistance and creating more job opportunities in the future.
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