The funeral sendoff was staged New Orleans style with a Dixieland band, Mardi Gras beads, boas and parasols.
The deceased was “poverty wages,” symbolized by a black casket and eulogized by a Unitarian minister at a funeral yesterday in front of City Hall organized by Maryland Working Families.
A majority of workers don’t earn enough to live with dignity was the take-away message of the afternoon. Their explicit message – Baltimore won’t prosper and move ahead unless wages rise at large institutions like the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
About 80 people, many from Service Employees International Union, AFSCME, Casa Baltimore and other organizations, paraded around War Memorial Plaza and listened to speakers who called on city government to support higher wages.
A few shared their experiences as low-wage full-time workers who struggle to live in the Baltimore area.
Wiley Rhymer, a floor tech at the Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore, said he tries to support his four sons on the wages he makes at his custodial job and does so just barely.
“I make twelve and change an hour,” he said. “You can’t live on this.”
Charly Carter, executive director of Working Families, said the average wage in Baltimore is about $9 per hour.
“Even with the minimum slated to rise to $10.10 by 2018, it’s still not nearly enough. And that’s not even counting recent and upcoming increases in utilities,” she told The Brew.
She said the groups organized the mock funeral to “draw attention to the incongruence of what Baltimoreans actually earn – and what it really takes to live here.”
Renting a Room
Simone Hicks spoke at the podium. She works in the same department as Rhymer and, after four years at Hopkins Hospital, she said she earns so little that she can’t afford an apartment and has to rent a room.
“After I pay for rent, for my food and my phone I have nothing left. I just paid $125 for food for me. I feel sorry for people who earn what I do and have children,” Hicks told the crowd.
In July 2014, 1199 SEIU won a pay increase for custodians, food service and other employees following a three-day strike earlier in the year at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Some key stories from The Brew archive:
• Johns Hopkins Hospital workers protest “poverty wage” pay scale (4/1/14)
• Scenes from the Hopkins picket line (4/9/14)
• Hollywood joins hospital workers to press Johns Hopkins to “pay a living wage” (5/11/14)
• Hopkins Hospital agrees to raise wages, reaches tentative pact with union (7/8/14)
“Just because we work for a big institution doesn’t mean we’re making big money,” she added.
The public relations office at Johns Hopkins Medicine has not yet responded to a request for comment on the institution’s wages.
On Wednesday, Sept. 30, this release came from Jania Matthews, assistant director of public relations and corporate communication for Johns Hopkins Medicine:
“Johns Hopkins Hospital strives to provide a positive work experience for all of our employees. As part of that commitment, we have made sure that the pay scale and our benefits, including educational opportunities to learn new skills, are on par or better than most hospitals in our region. We appreciate all that our employees do for Johns Hopkins Hospital.”
2% Percent Increase
Rhymer said his wage is not atypical. “Only lower wage workers who have been at Hopkins for 20 years or more automatically make $15 an hour or more,” he claims.
“The rest get 2% increases each year,” he said. “We call Hopkins the plantation and consider ourselves to be field hands,” he added, saying he was only partly joking.
Rhymer is a floor tech in the Emergency Department, which entails more than mopping floors.
“I see everything. I see what the poverty brings to Hopkins. When people come in shot and bleeding,we clean that up,” he said. “When people die, we clean the room up so it’s ready for the families.”
Rhymer commutes every day from Lansdowne in Baltimore County to the East Baltimore campus using public transit.
“I take the light rail to the subway. I get up at 4 a.m. to get to Hopkins by 6 a.m., and I spend $68 a month on a transit pass.”
His fiancee works part time, which helps keep the family afloat.
Where’s the City Council?
The demonstration attracted a flock of Council members, including Mary Pat Clarke, Eric Costello, Bill Henry, Sharon Green Middleton, Brandon Scott, Rochelle “Rikki” Spector and Carl Stokes.
None of them spoke or were asked to by the organizers, who described the “funeral” as a community event.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake was not in sight.
Carter said in an interview that she would like to see the City Council take the lead on this issue.
The union-supported Economic Policy Institute has calculated that a single worker needs to earn $28 an hour to raise a child in the Baltimore metro area.
“We need to have a serious discussion about raising wages here. Even if we could get it to $15 an hour, it would give workers an opportunity to begin to build a life and not be struggling to survive.”
Hicks agreed that $15 would be a good start. She came to Hopkins because she heard it “was a wonderful institution and you could work your way up the ladder.”
She aspires to a job in the hospital’s sterilization department.
“It pays better, but Hopkins would have to agree and train me for that,” she said.
She’s not sure the institution will agree. “We can’t walk through the door if they don’t open it for us,” she said.