Hopkins is one of the most powerful institutions in Baltimore. It is the city’s largest employer: over 17,000 of its 37,000 employees are Baltimore residents. As a world-renowned university with an endowment of over $4 billion, Hopkins has the means and the responsibility of creating a more equitable economy for our city’s residents.
Yet many of the residents who work at Hopkins — as custodial staff, food service workers or security guards — do so on minimum wage. In 1999, the University adopted a living wage of $7.75 an hour for its lowest-paid employees following months of backlash from the Hopkins and Baltimore community. In 2017, employees and students held protests, demanding that Hopkins ensure that contracted workers were paid $15 an hour.
As an American university, Hopkins is not alone in paying its workers barely enough to get by, while its higher-ups rake in millions each year. That inequality could become all the more stark in these coming months. Surviving with a living wage is already difficult. Surviving with those same wages in a pandemic — or no wages at all — may be impossible.
In the past couple of weeks, the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has hit the entire country hard, and Baltimore is no exception. Though the number of cases in Baltimore City is relatively low at the moment, the city, like most others in the U.S., has mostly shut down. Malls, schools, restaurants and attractions are closed.
Hopkins too has shut down, and all classes for the spring semester are now online. Students were ordered to leave their dorms within days, and many have left Homewood Campus. As a result, Hopkins no longer needs most of its workers. Only “essential employees” are working on campus, including security guards and custodial staff.
Though Hopkins stated that it will try to pay its contracted employees, whether they are working or not, this has not been the case for all. Dining workers have stated that they are unsure whether they will lose their jobs as a result of the University shutdown.
We do applaud Hopkins for deciding to pay student workers, whether they work during this period or not. Though they are not permitted to report to work on campus, they are allowed to work remotely. It’s great that Hopkins is paying its student employees and assisting them in making financial ends meet, especially for those in the Federal Work Study program.
The University needs to do the same for the rest of its employees, whether they are directly employed or contract workers. While contract workers are not directly employed by the University, Hopkins is still responsible for ensuring that they are getting paid. Contract workers are all the more vulnerable because they are not guaranteed the protections that other University employees get, such as housing grants.
The University is apparently “in conversation” with contractors like Bon Appétit Management, but we have no idea what these conversations have so far entailed. We need assurance that the University is, for once, working in the interest of some of its most vulnerable employees.
Under quarantine, students and employees are no longer able to organize and hold public protests, as they did in the past. Students have been sharing petitions on social media platforms urging Hopkins to pay its employees, and some workers have spoken out with their stories.
Still, students must step up to help all of those affected. Many of us have been preoccupied with demanding covered grades, a delayed commencement and a tuition refund. While these are all important concerns to student life, we must support the entirety of the Hopkins community. We must remind Hopkins that it is their responsibility to pay all of their workers.
This is hardly a radical proposal. In Baltimore, Horseshoe Casino announced that they will pay employees for two weeks and not change benefits. Several higher education institutions, such as the University of Chicago and Penn State, have committed to paying their workers through the Spring Quarter and until April 30 respectively. Hopkins must assure all of its employees that it will do the same. It would cost only a fraction of its $4 billion endowment to do so.
Over seven million people in America may lose their jobs between June and August. We must make sure that Hopkins workers are not a part of this number. Over the past several years, Hopkins has fallen short of protecting employees it considers to be essential. Now, as COVID-19 takes more and more lives and layoffs are increasing, there is no time to waste. It is up to Hopkins to protect the employees that have kept our campus clean, fed us and protected us from harm. Our University must set an example.