Overhaul worries hospital workers

November 19, 1994|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Sun Staff Writer

When Johns Hopkins Hospital recently announced that it would "re-engineer" itself, a bolt of fear shot through the work force, despite the hospital's promises not to lay off anyone.

All across the country, hospitals are reorganizing -- and often cutting staff.

Many employees who remain find themselves in new, redefined jobs, the result of hospital efforts to become more efficient in a competitive marketplace demanding lower prices and fewer inpatient beds.

Communities are affected too, as jobs move from urban hospitals to suburban facilities.

The changes affect all ranks of employees, including top managers, but often fall hardest on lower-paid workers who don't have much job mobility.

They file medical records, work alongside nurses, bathe patients, take out the garbage and deliver supplies.

Annie Henry, who sterilizes and sorts surgical instruments at Hopkins Hospital, is among the wary. "I think change is good to a certain extent," said the 25-year Hopkins veteran, "if they give people the training they need."

Hopkins offers several training and education programs and vows to include workers as it develops a plan, over the next eight months, for overhauling its operations.

"The employees who are affected will be the ones actually designing what they need to get from point A to point B," said Diane M. Iorfida, senior vice president for human resources and organizational effectiveness.

But Ms. Henry and the union representing her are skeptical. Service Employees International Union Local 1199E-DC is pressing Hopkins and other area hospitals for guarantees concerning training, access to new jobs and protection against layoffs and loss of pay and benefits.

The union is pushing its demands as part of negotiations for a new contract to replace the one that expires Dec. 1 and covers 3,000 workers at Hopkins, Sinai Hospital, Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Maryland General Hospital and Liberty Medical Center.

But union officials say their concerns about hospital changes must be addressed by the state government as well.

In a bid for attention and action, Local 1199's president, Robert Moore, invited politicians, community leaders, representatives of other unions and journalists to a meeting this week at 1199's Eutaw Street headquarters, across from the old Afro-American newspaper building.

After breakfasting on omelets, they chewed on tough issues that go beyond the hospitals themselves.

The 1,500 union members who work at Hopkins are an economic mainstay of the troubled East Baltimore neighborhoods surrounding Maryland's most famous medical institution, a fact not lost on Sen. Larry Young and Del. Clarence Davis, among the city-based elected officials at the meeting.

"We think it has a significant impact on the African-American community in Baltimore," Mr. Moore said, referring to the jobs held by union members, most of whom are black.

"While they're not the greatest jobs, these workers are making $8 or $9 an hour with benefits."

Said the Rev. Clayton Guyton, community coordinator for Madison East End Improvement Association: "We have a lot of people in the neighborhood who work up at Johns Hopkins."

Mr. Moore says he wants workers' issues addressed by the Governor's Task Force on Community Health Networks, which is examining how the state should regulate the changing health care marketplace.

Union proposals include establishment of a retraining fund, uniform skill standards for each job and a job mobility program.

"We'd like to be marketable, we'd like to be able to follow the work," said Sarah Almond, an organizer for 1199 and former Hopkins worker. "My thinking is that Greenspring," the new $12 million Hopkins medical center near Falls and Joppa roads in Lutherville, "is going to take some of the work from Hopkins."

Union officials say hospitals bear most responsibility for assuring a future for their workers. In a toughly worded public statement made in advance of the meeting this week, Mr. Moore declared: "Even though the (Johns Hopkins) hospital says it is committed to improving our East Baltimore neighborhoods, hospital negotiators are stubbornly refusing to agree to basic job protections and retraining assurances."

Hopkins officials, who have said there will be no layoffs due to re-engineering, strongly deny these assertions. Ms. Iorfida said, "We are able to provide in contract language some of the security that they're seeking. For us that security takes the form of very tangible dollars committed to training and retraining."

Hopkins officials tout their retraining program for medical records workers as a prime example of how they're treating employees in a changing environment. Instead of maintaining mountainous paper files in an administrative center, the hospital is shifting to computers and putting records staff on patient floors to speed up the flow of information.

Baltimore City Community College and Essex Community College have been brought in to train the 120-person staff for new recordkeeping tasks. Workers can "bid" for the job they want, but all will be guaranteed positions. They will have as long as five years to learn skills, for which pay grades have been raised: The entry level salary has been boosted from $13,700 to $16,000.

Rebutting union complaints, Ms. Iorfida provided copies of hospital correspondence with union officials, including a Nov. 7 letter outlining a "career advancement program primarily for employees who are members" of Local 1199.

Ms. Iorfida said she's "stumped" and frustrated by the complaints. "The disconnect for me is the people who are in between the union members and hospital leadership," she said, in an apparent reference to union leaders. "Because when we go to the union members and they tell us what they want, we deliver it."

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