City's ills laid to residents' low pay

Union reports service workers eligible for aid

Hopkins disputes study

April 02, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The key to breaking Baltimore out of economic "stagnation" is for employers - particularly hospitals - to pay low-income service workers higher wages, a health care union argues in a controversial new report.

The study, called "Putting Baltimore's People First," is a call to think of economic development in terms of salaries, since workers spend their money locally. It was prepared by the Service Employees International Union District 1199E-DC and released at a press conference at First Baptist Church, in the shadow of the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Robert Moore, president of the local union, said the city isn't thriving because service jobs don't pay nearly as well as the manufacturing jobs they replaced.

"If [service workers] can't have the kinds of jobs that support their families ... then I think our city is up against great odds," he said.

The report focuses on hospitals, noting that 18 percent of the city's work force is employed by the health care industry. It lays on pressure at a time when the union is in contract negotiations with three institutions, Hopkins Hospital, Greater Baltimore Medical Center and Sinai Hospital.

The report includes a chapter solely on the Johns Hopkins institutions, arguing that they can well afford to pay more because they don't pay property taxes and together earned more than $200 million in fiscal 2002.

Hopkins shot back by recruiting three economists who analyzed the union's report and released scathing comments.

"They've got it entirely backwards," Howard Baetjer Jr., an economics lecturer at Towson University, said in an interview yesterday. Higher wages make "it harder for Hopkins to do business - Hopkins can't expand as well, Hopkins is going to be able to hire-on less new people; it might have to put the prices of its services up, which makes it difficult for consumers of health care."

Unions, he countered, must take some blame for the rapid decline of manufacturing in the city because they pushed wages above market rates.

Pamela D. Paulk, vice president of human resources for the Johns Hopkins Hospital, said the nonprofit's margin of income will be less than 2 percent this fiscal year and said the money is needed for future expansion efforts.

"We feel that, long term, that the better growth strategy is to give people skills ... so they can move into higher-wage, higher-skill jobs," said Paulk, noting that Hopkins is paying full-time salaries to workers splitting their time between their jobs and training.

Low wages affect everyone, the union contends, because a parent with two children who earns $10 an hour could qualify for as much as $13,000 a year in public assistance, it says.

Angela Ward, 42, who makes $10 an hour sanitizing rooms and doing related tasks at Sinai Hospital, said after the press conference that "the money is just not enough to make it" with two children and a $700 monthly mortgage payment.

"Sometimes I have to borrow money just to pay the bills," said Ward, a Northeast Baltimore resident who's been with Sinai 11 years. "I'm a hardworking woman and I feel I deserve a lot more than I make. ... I cannot afford to send my kids to college."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who dubbed the report "provocative," is sympathetic to the local hospitals because city government employs service workers and is dealing with "very thin" operating margins. But he said it's reasonable to ask whether health care wages are fair if workers qualify for so much public assistance.

"We should look at whether there's a better way," he said.

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