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The $15 minimum wage: good for Hopkins, good for Baltimore, good for business | COMMENTARY

The Johns Hopkins Hospital will by January 1, 2022 provide a minimum starting salary of $15 per hour under a policy announced Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun).
The Johns Hopkins Hospital will by January 1, 2022 provide a minimum starting salary of $15 per hour under a policy announced Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun). (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun)

Leadership at Johns Hopkins are understandably proud of the organization’s recent decision to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour, beginning in July for the university and January for the health system, and they expect the benefits of that to flow through to the community. They predict no job losses and no negative impact on tuition or hospital rates, while workers collectively bring home $9 million more — to support themselves and their families, to spend in local businesses and to presumably make Baltimore a better place to live. But what ought not be overlooked is another key beneficiary: the institutions themselves. And it’s not just because their employees, or local residents or clients and perspective students will think better of them. It’s just good business. From attracting and retaining employees to making sure the city’s economy can bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, Hopkins has much to gain from this decision.

And that is what makes the pay raise important. Sure, it’s good public relations to grant raises to more than 6,000 people in Maryland, including 1,450 in Johns Hopkins Health System and about 4,800 at the Johns Hopkins University, but there’s no disputing the entire enterprise will be better off for making this choice. And there’s no shame in self-interest. Quite the opposite. Hopkins is providing a valuable lesson to other employers: A higher minimum wage pays big dividends; take the gamble. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s a smart long-term strategy.

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Across the nation, a lot of employers, both large and small, are facing similar choices. Some, particularly in the hospitality industry, are complaining that they struggle to fill vacant jobs and point a finger at what they see as overly generous government benefits including unemployment checks provided during the pandemic. Yet many of these same companies seem dead-set against taking the next logical step when jobs go unfilled: offering higher wages. Granted, resources are often limited. Small mom-and-pop businesses may already struggle to meet payroll, and raising the salaries of low-level workers creates a ripple effect as others expect a proportionate increase as well. But the alternative, to pay workers what is essentially a “non-living” wage propped up by food stamps or other taxpayer-funded subsidies, just is not a sustainable model. Not for workers. Not for the community. And not for the businesses themselves.

With all due respect to Ronald J. Daniels, Hopkins University president, and Kevin Sowers, president of the Hopkins health system, it doesn’t take a genius to see the win-win nature of paying a decent wage. Hopkins isn’t even the first to go this route. Amazon set the standard several years ago. Hopkins isn’t even the first in the local health care field. LifeBridge Health has been doing it since January. And within a few years, the rest of the state of Maryland is due to catch up. Under a 2019 law, the state minimum wage will gradually rise to $15 by 2025.

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Congress could surely learn a lesson from this. The federal minimum wage is a lowly $7.25 an hour. While President Joe Biden recently signed an executive order requiring a $15 minimum wage for federal contractors, the rate hasn’t been adjusted for anyone else in more than a decade, the longest freeze in its history. Conservatives claim to fret about job losses if wages rise. But what about the human losses when working families can’t make ends meet? The gap between rich and poor has grown too great. CEOs of U.S. public companies are paid 320 times their average workers’ pay, according to the Economic Policy Institute, compared to 61 times in 1989. We are becoming a nation of haves and have-nots. And with concentrated poverty manifest in cities like Baltimore, comes drug addiction, gun violence and other social ills.

Increasingly, big employers seem aware that something is amiss, and some high-profile corporations have thrown their support behind issues they would have ignored in years past from voting rights to police misconduct. Is this soft-heartedness? Virtue signaling? Wokeness? How about common sense and enlightened self-interest. Maryland’s largest private employer just set a new standard for compensation. Now, it’s time for others to recognize the logic in investing in their workers, in their communities and in a sustainable future.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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