Move to widen living wage

Institutions receiving city funds should cover all workers, group says

`A major agenda item'

April 11, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Last year, the Johns Hopkins University and hospital received $8.5 million in city contracts, according to city purchasing records.

That's the same Johns Hopkins that a month ago was the site of a 17-day sit-in by students protesting the institution's refusal to pay about 1,000 service workers from a subsidiary company a "living wage."

That the incident occurred in Baltimore -- the first of 41 cities in the nation to pass legislation requiring city contractors to pay workers above the federal poverty level -- hasn't been lost on the designers of the city's wage law.

Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD), the church-based civic group that drafted the 1994 legislation, says that Hopkins' city contracts violate the spirit of the Baltimore living wage standard that has been credited with improving the lives of everyone from Los Angeles migrants to Chicago construction workers.

BUILD has begun lobbying the City Council and Mayor Martin O'Malley to expand the law. The group wants companies or institutions receiving city money to pay all their workers the living wage, which will rise from $7.90 to $8.03 per hour in July, 55 percent higher than the federal minimum of $5.15 an hour.

"Right now, the law is narrower than that," BUILD organizer Jonathan Lange said.

Everyone, including BUILD, agrees that Hopkins is meeting city law. The city Wage Commission -- created to enforce Baltimore's living-wage requirement -- says the legislation covers contract employees performing city work.

Half of the Hopkins city funding pays for clinical services to aid the city Health Department. Most of those workers are professionals, earning well above the living wage. The university pays all of its 12,000 full-time workers the living wage. Hopkins health-care workers earning the minimum receive $7.52 an hour.

Yet employees of Broadway Services Inc., a subsidiary for-profit company created to handle Hopkins security, parking and janitorial services, earn an average of $6.38 an hour. Hopkins has agreed to try to raise the Broadway salaries to $7.70 by 2002, yet contends it is unable to commit to a living wage across its work force.

With health benefits, BSI workers earn an average of $8.74 an hour, Hopkins said.

Uncertainty over the impact that health-care competition might have on Hopkins revenues is the chief reason given by the school. One week after the student protest, the university raised tuition, room and board for undergraduates by 5 percent next year, to $33,121, to cover administrative expenses.

"We cannot tie our future wage schedules to a moving target, the way that they define the living wage," Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea said. "It's impossible to tie such wage scales to an uncertain future."

The student sit-in, conducted by a BUILD-backed group that calls itself the Student Labor Action Committee, grabbed the attention of City Council President Sheila Dixon. Dixon said she is open to exploring how city contractors would be affected by expanding the city living-wage law.

Yesterday, Dixon introduced a resolution asking the city school board to impose the living wage on its contractors. Because the school system is operated in partnership with the state, it is not required to abide by the city law.

"In this time of prosperity, it becomes evident that, in a country as prosperous as the United States, no full-time workers should have to live in poverty," Dixon said in the resolution.

City economic development officials worry that requiring the living wage to cover all employees of companies receiving city subsidies could chill city efforts to attract businesses.

M. J. "Jay" Brodie, president of Baltimore Development Corp., said he does not oppose the living wage but thinks that it could become a factor for companies determining whether to locate in the city or surrounding counties.

"I'm worried when the city has a higher bar to jump over than the counties," Brodie said. "We already have a higher bar in property taxes."

Forcing companies such as Hopkins to abide by the living wage could set up a significant political showdown. The university and hospital are the biggest builders in Baltimore. During the next five years, Hopkins plans to complete or begin $1 billion in construction to expand and update its facilities.

As the state's largest employer, with 38,000 full-time jobs at the university and hospital, Hopkins spent $176 million in construction last year, the most of any entity in the city.

During last year's mayoral race, O'Malley, who voted for the living-wage legislation as a city councilman in 1994, pledged to support the living wage as mayor. At the request of BUILD, the mayor has agreed to form a task force to study the implications of expanding the law, a panel yet to be created.

Opponents of expanding the law, however, question how the city can legislate the pay of company employees not working under city contracts. Hopkins has workers ranging from 3,000 in Howard County to 23 in China.

"As far as I'm concerned, we can only control and dictate when it's our money," said City Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector.

Although BUILD leaders agree they probably lack standing to challenge the Hopkins city contracts under the law, they pledge to keep lobbying O'Malley and the city to expand it until workers such as those at Broadway Services are covered.

"It's going to be a major agenda item for us," Lange said. "And we're going to push it until we get it."

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