Strikes averted at Hopkins, Sinai hospitals Service workers gain last-minute accords

December 11, 1997|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

Last-minute contract agreements averted scheduled walkouts by workers yesterday at Johns Hopkins and Sinai hospitals.

District 1199E of the Service Employees International Union, representing cleaning, maintenance, food service and clerical employees and nurses' aides, had scheduled a 2 1/2 -hour strike and rally to begin at noon. But working through the night with a federal mediator, the negotiators reached agreement at Hopkins at 5:15 a.m. Sinai talks were extended, and concluded about 12:30 p.m.

People on both sides of the talks said bargaining contracts has become more difficult as managed-care insurers put increased pressure on hospital rates.

"Our price structure is too high in comparison to some of the more aggressively priced Beltway community hospitals," said Ronald R. Peterson, president of Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins Health System. In response, he said, Hopkins is making efforts to trim $55 million from a $600 million budget.

"Hospitals are highly labor-intensive," Peterson said. "It's hard for that not to have impact on the total number of people you employ, the mix you employ or how much you pay."

Dave Snapp, health care organizing director for SEIU, which represents 475,000 health care workers nationally, said, "There's no question that health care is a tougher and tougher environment for anybody in the system, but it's toughest on the smallest people in the system."

Raises for hospital workers have been smaller over the last few years, and hospitals also are looking to use more part-time workers, to cut benefits and to increase workloads and responsibilities, he said.

"If you need to save on costs, hospitals have a lot of fixed capital costs, so there's not much wiggle room there," said Brad Humphreys, an economist at University of Maryland Baltimore County who studies hospital finances.

"You can't skimp on inputs into medical costs," Humphreys said. "You can't say you're not going to give post-operative patients any Tylenol."

In fact, the proportion of hospital expenses going to salaries, wages and employee benefits has been declining at Hopkins and Sinai, according to reports the hospitals file with the state Health Services Cost Review Commission. In 1990, Hopkins devoted 52.5 percent of its spending to pay and benefits, but by 1996, that was down to 47.1 percent. At Sinai, the expenditure has fallen from 63.9 percent in 1990 to 57.9 in 1996.

Unionized nurses, too, have had trouble bargaining contracts. The Professional Staff Nurses Association struck for two days in October against Dimensions Healthcare System, which runs two Prince George's County hospitals, and have now been negotiating for almost a year in an attempt to get a contract there.

"Hospital managers are making serious efforts to hold onto their turf" by keeping rates competitive, "and they're doing it at the expense of the employees," said Larry N. Grosser, director of the nurses' union. Grosser, who has been with the union since 1982, said, "Since 1994 or 1995, it's been almost impossible" to negotiate a fair contract.

But the tentative contract reached at Hopkins represented "a fair and honorable agreement," said Bob Moore, president of District 1199E.

And the Hopkins agreement "helped move things along" at Sinai, said Jill Bloom, a spokeswoman for the hospital.

Ratification votes are scheduled at the two hospitals for tomorrow. The union represents about 1,500 workers at Hopkins and about 550 at Sinai. Both sides declined to discuss the substance of the agreement until the ratification vote.

Pub Date: 12/11/97

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