College Park women fight extra hours for same pay

May 05, 1991|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK -- Joan Wood has spent the winter slammin doors.

Her anger erupted in January, when she learned that notwithstanding 20 years of service as chief aide to the dean of arts and humanities at the University of Maryland College Park, the governor wanted her to work 4 1/2 more hours a week with no extra pay. "I felt devalued," she said. "Insulted."

Requiring two-thirds of all state employees to work those extra hours without pay is part of the plan advanced by Gov. William Donald Schaefer to keep the state afloat in the face of a shrinking state budget. The governor and his personnel secretary, Hilda E. Ford, say it will increase productivity at a time when they can't afford to fill vacancies.

But Mrs. Wood and five colleagues at the College Park campus have vowed to fight. To them, it comes down to whether a group of people -- most of them female -- should be singled out to work what amounts to an extra 29 days a year for free.

Come July 1, about 44,000 employees -- roughly 30,000 women and 14,000 men -- will start working an extra 4 1/2 hours every week for no extra pay, triggering, for some, a reshuffling of their personal lives, from child care arrangements to second jobs. Those employees affected include clerks, secretaries and administrative aides, the lowest-paid employees at state agencies and public universities.

"We have no problem with working 40 hours," Linda Scovitch, chief aide to the vice president of student affairs, told several co-workers in April. "But pay us."

At the table with Mrs. Wood and Ms. Scovitch were Gloria Chawla, a librarian; Joan McKee, aide to the chief academic officer; Carol Prier, aide to the dean of the college of engineering; and Lynne Thomas, aide to the vice president for the budget.

In their bid to see the pain of budget cuts spread around more evenly, these women have taken actions they say they never would have considered before: writing to lawmakers, talking in front of TV cameras, plotting strategy behind closed doors -- even filing a federal discrimination complaint.

And in that time, Mrs. Wood, a 51-year-old secretary, and the others have seen themselves transformed from mild-mannered professionals to leaders in a legal fight over what they see as fair labor practices and civil rights.

"It's brought out things in people they never knew they had," said Ms. McKee. "They feel empowered."

The women say they got involved because they listened to lower-paid workers such as Sherri Allen, a payroll clerk, who won't be able to afford a baby sitter for her three children for the additional hours she will have to work, and Elva Eilertson, an aide in the art department, who needs time to dress her 85-year-old mother every morning.

"We see a lot of what goes by and felt the obligation to try to protect people who don't have information," said Ms. McKee, 40.

After three months, the women have won support from College Park President William E. Kirwan, faculty and students.

"It will do irreparable damage," said Richard Herman, dean of computer, mathematical and physical sciences, who gathered other deans last month to draft a letter to the Board of Regents.

He and other deans say they are worried about more than morale: The new mandate will mean the campus will be offering wages that are as much as 30 percent below those for comparable jobs at local schools and county offices.

The women's greatest disappointment so far is not that the state is asking them to work the equivalent of more than five extra workweeks a year for free; it is that the public -- even on their own campus -- does not share their outrage.

"The public thinks we are a bunch of whiners and complainers who don't want to work 40 hours a week," said Ms. McKee. "If we asked them to work more hours without pay, they would feel differently."

In their offices, these six women are right-hand people to key university officials. They says they love their jobs, and they understood this year when, because of the economy, they didn't get a cost-of-living raise.

But in the last decade, their research shows, their salaries have been outstripped by inflation to the point that they make 10 percent less now than they did in 1980. At the same time, the women say, faculty salaries have increased 26 percent. Most of the workers affected have reached the top of their pay scales, and with a 40-hour week, hourly wages will revert to 1987 levels.

Off campus, the women have confronted the public's perception of state employees such as themselves as clock-watchers. On campus, the University of Maryland regents heard Ms. McKee describe the policy's impact on women -- and then, at the same meeting, promptly voted to institute the increase in hours. "They could have at least shown a little sympathy," Ms. Thomas said after the January meeting.

But their letter-writing campaign seemed to hit home: In February, less than a month after Mr. Schaefer announced his 40-hour workweek plan, he changed his mind.

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