Case centers on sex bias, contract terms

May 05, 1991|By Patricia Meisol

The legal battle over the move to the 40-hour workwee focuses on two main arguments: discrimination against women and unfair labor practices, including breaking an implied contract.

Work hours for state employees are set out in state regulations, which describe the workweek as ranging from 35 to 40 hours, according to James F. Truitt Jr., assistant attorney general and counsel to the Department of Personnel.

As a result, he says, there are no legal grounds for a case of breaking an implied contract.

But Gloria Chawla, a librarian at the University of Maryland College Park, disagrees. She says people sought work on campus because the jobs were for fewer hours.

"Most of us have chosen the shorter workweek for our own reasons, mainly child care, and with it, the lower salary," she said. Ms. Chawla is paid $32,000 a year; she says she could be making $5,000 more at a comparable area institution for the same number of hours.

Richard Kirschner of Kirschner, Weinberg, Dempsey of Washington, general counsel to AFSCME International, who is handling the case for the College Park women, says that if the state hired certain workers for certain jobs at 35 1/2 hours and unilaterally changed the conditions, there could be "substantial validity" to the women's claim.

(Maryland is not a collective bargaining state -- unions cannot represent state workers at the bargaining table -- but state PTC workers can join unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Maryland Classified Employees Association to represent them in labor disputes.)

Skepticism about whether the plan was fair and legal and would achieve the governor's goals to save money and increase productivity led the House of Delegates this spring to pass a resolution against the policy. But it was rejected by the Senate.

The origin of the 35-hour week is unclear. Some say it began as a way to attract women to the work force during World War II.

Others say it was an energy-saving alternative to a six-hour, 5 1/2 -day week common in the 1930s.

A possible explanation for why most 35-hour employees today are women is that clerical, financial and office-based state jobs -- jobs historically filled by women -- are still set at 35 hours. Jobs such as maintenance workers and prison guards -- historically filled by men -- long ago were changed to 40 hours.

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