State employees wary of layoff roller coaster

December 17, 1990|By Thomas W. Waldron and Laura Lippman | Thomas W. Waldron and Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

Siegfried Wolff, a bond-program coordinator in the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says being a state employee these days is much like being a prisoner condemned to death in revolutionary France.

"Every now and then, they bring you out and show you the guillotine and then take you back. Big deal," Wolff says. "Then they come out and cut your head off another day, without any warning."

Wolff and many of his colleagues among the state's 76,000 workers were whipsawed last week by Gov. William Donald Schaefer's on-again-off-again threats to lay off as many as 1,800 of them by Jan. 1.

As late as last Wednesday, Schaefer was saying that layoffs were unavoidable in the effort to erase the state's 1990 budget deficit, now standing at an estimated $243 million. "There will be no good guys," he predicted ominously.

By Friday afternoon, Schaefer relented, saying he would instead consider budget-cutting options proposed by the legislature.

But many state workers are still on guard.

"They don't know what to believe next," said Joseph Cook, director of field services for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, one of the major state employees unions. "It's like turn the cheek today, and turn the cheek tomorrow. Some of our people are extremely upset."

It may be a while before employees recover from last week's emotional roller coaster. "Morale is as low as I've ever seen it," said one health department worker.

In the public defender's office, which had been expecting significant layoffs, supervisors were in "turmoil" as late as Friday morning figuring out how to cut their already tight budgets, according to a personnel officer.

Schaefer did not rule out layoffs completely Friday. He said merely that firings would be avoided "at this time."

With the state already facing a $204 million deficit in the budget that will go into effect next July 1, the pressure for layoffs may well increase.

"If you can't lay off 1,800 now, what do you do in three months . . . lay off 3,600 to get the same budget-cutting effect?" said Charles Zeleski, assistant director of environmental health in the state health department in Carroll County. "It's relief now, but it's not an overall relaxation."

Avoiding layoffs for even a few months would be preferable to immediate firings, Cook said. Layoffs planned in advance could be administered under the state personnel code, which gives fired workers 90-day notices and gives senior employees who are laid off the right to "bump" less experienced workers out of their jobs.

Even if layoffs are avoided, state employees appear certain to take some kind of financial hit, whether through furloughs, a small pay cut or the loss of paid holidays.

"I figure he's [Schaefer] going to knock the hell out of the state employees," said a military department worker who asked not to be identified.

While it appeared that Schaefer truly planned to fire workers last week, some employees now suggest that he was using their plight to drum up support for tax increases.

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