Hundreds of health care workers — many who say they can't afford care from the hospitals where they're employed — demanded better wages and benefits at a rally Thursday where actor and activist Danny Glover was on hand to back their cause.
Some workers came from work, still dressed in scrubs, to tell their stories about juggling bills to make it on small salaries. Many talked about holding side jobs. They were nurse's assistants, laundry workers and those who check in patients and serve them food.
The Service Employees International Union staged the rally at Mount Vernon Square to pressure more hospitals and nursing homes to allow their workers to unionize. Less than 10 percent of Maryland hospital workers belong to unions.
The health care field is the largest industry in Baltimore with 1 in 5 workers holding jobs at hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities. But according to the SEIU, health care workers are 2 1/2 times more likely to go on food stamps than other workers. They more often go without insurance than other workers in industries, and their average wage in the state is $10 an hour, the union said.
"It certainly takes more than $10 an hour to support yourself and a family," said John Reid, executive vice president of Local 1199 of the SEIU, which represents Maryland and Washington.
Glover, whose parents were postal workers and active in union activities in San Francisco, said he came to encourage the workers to continue to fight.
"Men and women who work every day don't have the capacity to build a future," Glover told the crowd. "If another world is possible, you're going to win it right here in Baltimore with health care workers."
Glover is known for his activism, particularly with unions. In April, Glover and 11 people were arrested after protesting what they called unfair and illegal treatment of workers in Gaithersburg.
While Johns Hopkins, Sinai and Maryland General have union representation, other hospitals are often resistant to union organizing, labor officials and health care workers said.
The Maryland Hospital Association didn't return calls seeking comment. The Health Facilities Association of Maryland, the trade group that represents long-term nursing homes, said that its members spend more than 70 percent of their revenue on labor and benefits. Wages and benefits are their No. 1 expense, said Joseph DeMattos, the group's president and CEO.
"By and large, long-term care facilities in Maryland over the last couple of years have made salary increases," DeMattos said. "They've also looked at total package compensation, such as scholarships, benefits and training."
Nursing facilities get much of their operating revenue from Medicare, which has seen cuts in both federal and state Medicare funding, putting financial pressure on the businesses, DeMattos said.
At the rally, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that better pay and benefits for health care workers would lead to better quality of care for patients. "You work hard for a living, but you can't make a living," Rawlings-Blake, a labor union supporter, told the crowd.
Octavia Jennings said her job sanitizing hospital rooms after a patient is discharged doesn't give her enough money to take care of her three children. She has a variety of side jobs, including cutting hair and drawing portraits, to supplement her hourly salary of $9.16 at University of Maryland Medical Center. She also receives food stamps.
"I have to do everything I can to try to make it," Jennings said. "If I could make more money, it would be easier."
Workers also said employees have passed along higher health care premiums and other costs, such as uniforms. Patricia Diggs, 48, said she makes $13 an hour at Johns Hopkins Hospital as a support associate who helps check outpatients.
"We need more money," she said. "It's a struggle every day."