Hopkins to retain unskilled employees Health system vows it won't replace them with welfare trainees

March 17, 1997|By Brenda J. Buote | Brenda J. Buote,SUN STAFF

Johns Hopkins Health System, the state's largest private employer, is vowing to protect its unskilled workers from being replaced by welfare-to-work trainees.

Leaders of the Maryland Industrial Areas Foundation announced Hopkins' decision yesterday. The decision represents a victory for the association.

IAF, a coalition of church-based community groups and unskilled laborers, made the announcement during its conference on welfare reform at the Johns Hopkins University. The event was attended by more than 1,000 advocates for the working poor.

The federal government is offering subsidies to businesses that hire welfare recipients for job-training programs.

IAF, with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, has been pressuring businesses to reject those subsidies unless the subsidy goes to employees in new jobs or those hired to fill vacant ones.

"I would like to reiterate my position that the Johns Hopkins Health System will not engage in the practice of displacing workers with trainees in any welfare to work program," Hopkins hospital President Ronald R. Peterson stated March 13 in a letter to the Solidarity Sponsoring Committee (SSC). The committee represents unskilled workers.

In the letter, Peterson also stated he would consider "a meaningful increase in hourly pay rates" in fiscal 1998. The increase would go to low-wage contractors providing services to the health system.

IAF leaders said yesterday they believe Hopkins' commitment to a policy of "nondisplacement" will encourage other businesses to do the same.

The health system, created in 1986, consists of Johns Hopkins Hospital, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and Johns Hopkins Medical Services Corp., which provides medical care at 17 off-campus sites.

In January, the federal government set a time limit on welfare, giving states five years to put half of their recipients to work. Maryland has nearly 90,000 welfare recipients.

The IAF and other advocates worry that welfare reform laws will force unskilled workers to compete with welfare recipients for jobs.

"The new welfare reform policy places us in a revolving door, where we continually switch places with one another at low-wage jobs," said Paul Booth of AFSCME. "As more and more welfare recipients flood the job market looking for work, low-wage workers will start to lose their jobs."

The increased competition may also further reduce already low wages nationwide, Booth said. Labor economists have predicted wages could drop by as much as 11 percent.

Adding to the problem is that too few openings exist, said Jonathan Lang, lead organizer for SSC. In Baltimore, where 4,700 welfare recipients must find jobs by June 30 -- when fiscal 1997 ends -- a net gain of 66 low-skilled jobs is predicted, Lang said.

"This [welfare reform] policy pits the poor against the poor," said the Rev. Grady A. Yeargin, co-chairman of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a church-based community organization. "This is not welfare reform. It is welfare repeal."

The solution, Yeargin and other IAF leaders said, is to create jobs in public works. IAF is asking Gov. Parris N. Glendening to create 5,000 jobs that pay a "living wage" that ensures that workers can support themselves.

The 5,000 new jobs sought by IAF could be created by diverting $9 million -- 20 percent of the $450 million federal block grant given to Maryland to reform welfare -- to jobs creation, Lang said.

Glendening did not attend the IAF conference and could not be reached for comment last night. However, state officials have said they will create community service slots in the next two years if private jobs do not exist.

"Our preference is for welfare recipients to find private-sector jobs at a decent wage, but we must be prepared to offer public-sector community service employment if those jobs are not available," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who co-chairs the state's Joint Committee on Welfare Reform.

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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