Hopkins is a `living wage' leader among universities

June 02, 1999|By James T. McGill

ON THIS page on May 20, Ben Cashdan, a member of the Student Labor Action Committee at the Johns Hopkins University, argued that Hopkins' recent action to increase the wages of its lowest-paid employees does not go far enough. I beg to differ with Mr. Cashdan. In fact, Hopkins has been a leader among universities on this matter.

When the "living wage" issue emerged locally about three years ago, Hopkins officials raised the university's minimum wage, first to $5.50 and then to $6 an hour (the federal minimum wage is now $5.15 an hour).

More recently, after further study and discussions with representatives of SLAC, Hopkins President William R. Brody committed to bring all workers associated with the Johns Hopkins institutions to a wage level of at least $7.75 an hour within three years.

In a March message on the subject to Hopkins faculty, students and staff, Dr. Brody stated his strong belief that all members of the university community contribute significantly to its success. He also committed the university to the principle that "members of the Johns Hopkins community should enjoy at least a basic quality of life and should live free of poverty."

Dr. Brody also endorsed the concerns of SLAC that he said "are consistent with the values that lie at the core of Hopkins as a university fundamentally committed to improving people's lives through education, research and patient care."

Wage plan

Dr. Brody then outlined his decision, correctly described by Mr. Cashdan, to direct that all university employees, employees of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System and employees of on-campus contractors, such as dining and parking services, be paid no less than $7.75 an hour within three years.

Some 1,000 jobs are affected by this action. Only about 100 are in the university. About 450 are within the hospital and health system. The remainder are contractor jobs either at the university or the health system.

SLAC has asked that all these jobs immediately pay $7.70 an hour, the "living wage" adopted by Baltimore as the minimum pay for all employees of contractors hired by the city. SLAC also seeks guaranteed increases as the "living wage" amount increases with adjustments of the federal "poverty line."

Within the university, all employees are now paid at least $7.70 an hour.

Further, some university staff employees governed by union contracts will receive cost-of-living increases of nearly 20 cents an hour in each of the next two years.

SLAC is taking issue, then, not with the current wages of university employees, but with the three-year schedule that will bring all hospital and health system employees and employees of Hopkins contractors to $7.75 an hour. It also asks, in effect, for a guarantee of future increases beyond that wage.

The university will require its contractors to pay wages of at least $7.75 an hour by July 1, 2001, less than three years from now. The health system, however, will need the full three years to phase in the $7.75-an-hour wage for its affected employees and contractor employees. It is there that the financial pressure is greatest and the transition will be most difficult.

Medicaid cuts

The health system, a separate corporation from the university, though obviously a closely affiliated one, has to adjust to a 4-percent cut in Medicaid reimbursements this year and threats of decreases in private insurance reimbursements.

The teaching hospital counterparts of the Johns Hopkins Health System at Harvard, Stanford, Penn, Cornell and elsewhere are losing money and laying off workers. With good management, Johns Hopkins Hospital is still breaking even and avoiding layoffs. It is only prudent to phase in the higher wages there over the three-year period.

Mr. Cashdan asserts that "Hopkins is awash in money" because of a strong stock market. While our endowment has enjoyed considerable growth, thanks to the market and to the success of our capital campaign, nearly all of the university's endowment is designated by the donors for specific purposes, such as research or student scholarships. Neither the principal nor its earnings are legally available to be spent for general purposes, such as broadly distributed wage increases.

Keeping a balance

Hopkins is balancing the need to treat its employees humanely with its responsibility to manage resources prudently and to carry out its core missions of teaching, research, patient care and service.

Dr. Brody has listened to SLAC's arguments and taken its concerns to heart. He has demonstrated leadership on this issue; Hopkins is one of the few universities to deal with it squarely.

James T. McGill is senior vice president for administration at the Johns Hopkins University. President William R. Brody's March message on the living wage issue is on line at http: //www.jhu.edu/president.

Pub Date: 6/02/99

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