Hopkins arm facing protests

`Living wage' sought for janitors at for-profit subsidiary

May 24, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Standing tall above the crowded and growing field of Baltimore-area cleaning contractors, with more janitors cleaning more offices, is the for-profit affiliate of the nonprofit Johns Hopkins empire.

As a result, Broadway Services Inc. finds itself the target of students and labor organizers fighting to boost wages for Baltimore's janitors, many of whom are paid minimum wage and are among the city's lowest-paid wage earners.

Yesterday, organizers took their plea to the City Council, which is considering a bill that would require more employers with city government contracts to pay their janitors a "living wage."

In 1994, Baltimore became the first city to adopt a living wage law, designed to keep workers out of poverty by requiring a minimum wage for all city-contracted employees. The rate is now $7.90 an hour.

The law doesn't apply to all of Broadway's employees because many work at privately owned buildings.

Janitor Lonnie Howard urged Council President Sheila Dixon and others at a council subcommittee meeting to work harder to raise wages for the 12,000-plus janitors in the city "so that more of Baltimore's citizens can enjoy life above the poverty line."

Howard used to work for Broadway, making $4.25 an hour, he said. Now he's better paid, he said, making $8.50 an hour as a janitor at Franklin Square Elementary School, but with no benefits. He regularly speaks out on behalf of lesser-paid janitors.

Broadway Services provides security guards, parking attendants, delivery drivers and janitors to more than 150 businesses around Baltimore.

More than half of its 1,475 employees are janitors. Clients include a handful of city schools, the Peabody Institute, Anne Arundel Medical Center and The Sun.

Half of Broadway's 800 janitors are part time and receive no benefits.

For the full-time employees, the company pays 80 percent of their health benefits. Although the average wage of all of Broadway's workers is $8.01, the majority of janitors earn considerably less, said Tom McGown, Broadway's president.

At least 5 percent of Broadway's janitors earn the minimum wage, $5.15.

Broadway Services, incorporated in 1982, is part of Dome Corp., the profit-making arm of the nonprofit Johns Hopkins Hospital and University.

Dome, which buys and develops real estate for Hopkins, is 50 percent owned by the hospital and the university.

Dome has sold a number of money-losing ventures over the years, leaving Broadway as its most profitable subsidiary.

As demand for janitors grows at downtown Baltimore buildings and hotels, Broadway's sales have risen steadily each year, to $34 million in 1997.

Activists argue that Broadway -- as a subsidiary of a heavily subsidized institution -- has an obligation to pay more to its janitors.

In March, students staged a sit-in at the university administration building to draw attention to what they felt were low wages paid to Hopkins' janitors.

"Our concern with Broadway is that the bulk of workers make poverty-level wages," said David Snyder, a graduate student with the Student Labor Action Committee. "We met one woman who was living in a homeless shelter."

Hopkins has agreed to start increasing wages paid to janitors at its buildings.

The university plans to start paying $7.75 per hour this summer, and the hospital system plans to follow suit in two years.

Snyder and other students say that's a step in the right direction, but it's still below the city's "living wage," which is scheduled to rise from $7.90 to $8.03 in July.

The janitors are backed by Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), the church-backed group that drafted the 1994 law, and an affiliated group called the Solidarity Sponsoring Committee. In addition to lobbying the mayor and City Council, the groups are trying to find union representation for janitors in Baltimore.

McGown said he would like to pay his janitors more because it would reduce turnover and stabilize his work force.

But his hands are tied, he said. Profit margins are low in the janitorial business and Broadway makes no more than 3 percent profit from its sales.

A sharp jump in wages -- like the one that would result from the City Council's pending bill -- could bankrupt his company, which competes against scores of other cleaning contractors, he said.

"We can only pay what the client pays us," he said. "The market drives the price."

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