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Hopkins Graduate workers deserve $15 wage | READER COMMENTARY

Johns Hopkins announced it will increase the minimum wage at its university and health system to $15 an hour and it will affect some 6,000 Maryland workers. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun).
Johns Hopkins announced it will increase the minimum wage at its university and health system to $15 an hour and it will affect some 6,000 Maryland workers. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun). (Karl Merton Ferron)

Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Health Systems made news on May 6 when leaders of both institutions announced that they would be adopting a $15 minimum wage (”The $15 minimum wage: good for Hopkins, good for Baltimore, good for business,” May 6). As members of the Hopkins community, we were excited to see this move. Furthermore, as members of Teachers and Researcher United, the Hopkins grad union, we were proud of the role of organized labor including the caregivers of United Healthcare Workers East (1199SEIU), in making this announcement possible.

Yet we were surprised to see that graduate workers were not included in what was described as an “enterprise-wide” standard. The internal announcement of the wage increase states that “adopting the $15 minimum wage this year recognizes the hard work and commitment that each and every employee makes to our mission,” but makes no mention of including graduate workers. If this is truly an equitable move across the university, Johns Hopkins must include us for our hard work and commitment, especially during this pandemic.

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A $15 hourly wage translated over 40 hours a week for 52 weeks a year equates to $31,200 annually. Currently, a substantial number of graduate students across the Hopkins system make thousands of dollars below this amount every year despite the university’s growing $6.5 billion endowment and a projected $76 million surplus for 2021. Graduate students routinely work over 40 hours a week, time that encompasses teaching, research and administrative labor. Over the past year alone, this work has been absolutely essential to keeping the university running. The decision to ignore the necessity of this labor causes substantial material harm to both us as individuals and us as the Hopkins community.

This is not the first time Hopkins has forgotten graduate workers. Just this past December, JHU decided not to include grad workers in the $500 “thank you” bonus given to its other workers making less than $200,000 a year. When we asked our fellow workers what they would use an extra $500 for, they told us about mundane work costs the university had outsourced to us during the pandemic, notably utility payments and technological upgrades for new online work, as well as pressing personal costs like medicine and groceries. These responses provide a snapshot into a deeper precarity that won’t simply disappear as the immediate threat of COVID-19 recedes. There is a mistaken impression that the prestige of our labor is compensation enough for the work we do. As graduate workers at other institutions across the country have pointed out, we can’t eat prestige.

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We agree with President Ron Daniel’s assertion that “paying higher wages to employees supports both them and the local communities in which we live and work.” We would like to remind President Daniels that we also live and work here in Baltimore. Just because the university recognizes us as students does not mean we’re not also employees. Neither does our “student” designation exempt us from having families and basic needs such as housing and food. To live and work, all graduate students need a living wage, and we expect no less than the amount the university has promised to give “each and every employee.”

Kristin Brig-Ortiz and Alexander Peeples, Baltimore

The writers are doctoral students at Johns Hopkins University.

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