Despite receiving a temporary reprieve from the governor, state employees could still find themselves working longer hours and facing layoffs on short notice in coming months as officials seek to contain a growing budget crisis.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer temporarily rescinded yesterday a month-old executive order for thousands of state workers to put in 40-hour weeks instead of the current 35 1/2 .
He said he would suspend the order until July 1 and issue a new one calling for newly hired state workers to be scheduled for 40-hour workweeks effective immediately. Meanwhile, state officials will study the potential savings of a longer workweek, he said.
"I haven't changed my mind on the 40-hour week. . . . We will try to do it. I don't think it's fair for two-thirds to do it and one-third not to do it," Schaefer said.
About two-thirds of the state's 65,000 employees now work 35 1/2 hours a week, under a decades-old personnel policy. Currently, about 20,000 public employees, including prison guards, State Police and others, are scheduled for 40 hours a week.
The action does not affect other cost-saving measures announced by Schaefer that force state workers to pay a greater share of the cost of their health insurance and to go without pay raises this year.
It also leaves in place an administration request for an emergency regulation that would effectively eliminate the 90-day notice now required before state workers can be laid off.
The change would reduce the notice to 14 days, but adds that a shorter term can be invoked "in the interests of efficiency of state government." A joint committee of the General Assembly must approve the change before it goes into effect.
Legislative leadership is working on its own package of measures to cut personnel costs, said House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Eastern Shore.
"I don't see any way out of the 40-hour week," Mitchell said. "I think it's better to keep people working rather than the layoffs."
It was the third reversal by Schaefer on a controversial personnel issue in less than a year. Last summer, he demanded, then softened, demands for drug testing. In December he announced massive layoffs to balance the budget, and then changed his mind.
"I'm not perfect. When I see I've got to make a change. . . . We'll step back and take a look at it," Schaefer said.
State workers had been winning a surprising amount of support from legislators to reverse Schaefer's 40-hour workweek. A bill reversing the 40-hour order had been introduced in the Senate and was being prepared in the House, where more than 20 lawmakers had agreed to sponsor the bill.
Several members said they had received an unprecedented number of calls from state workers supporting the effort.
"The two things I'm hearing most about is 'don't raise my taxes' and from the state workers," said Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Balto. Co., the House minority leader.
The governor's decision to relent on the 40-hour week took the public employee unions by surprise. Maryland does not allow collective bargaining for state workers, but the unions were able to mobilize their members to call and write to lawmakers.
"This is just fantastic news. I am very grateful for the effort of state workers," said Bill Bolander, executive director of Council 92 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Cuts can be made to the budget without lengthening the workweek or laying off workers, Bolander said.
"It's a matter of priorities," he said.
Joseph Cook, director of field services for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, said, "We're ecstatic. . . . The new hours were giving a lot of people problems."