Hundreds protest as UM regents OK 40-hour workweek

June 20, 1991|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Sun Staff Correspondent

ADELPHI -- Deciding it is better to risk the wrath of employees than that of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the governing board of the state university system ordered yesterday that more than 5,000 employees work up to 4 1/2 more hours a week for no extra pay.

In the largest demonstration before the University of Marylan Board of Regents in years, more than 300 employees, most of them women, took annual leave from jobs on at least five campuses to stage a last-ditch effort aimed at scuttling a 40-hour workweek. The change amounts to a 12 percent cut in hourly pay for mostly clerical workers.

Some booed and heckled. Some carried signs saying, "Vote No to 40-hour tyranny in the Free State," "I will not work for free" and "Say No to 40 hours."

By the end of a tension-filled meeting, some protesters had already decided what to do next. "I'll take a bar-tending job," said Marilyn L. McGhee, a business manager in the Cooperative Extension Service. She said she will give up a beach vacation next week to hunt for a new job.

The regents' action means that more than 5,262 employees of the state university system now working 35 1/2 or 37 1/2 hours a week will switch to a 40-hour week July 1. As many as 80 percent of those affected are women. Most earn less than $25,000 a year.

On the University of Maryland's College Park campus, where opposition has been most vocal, clerical workers' hourly wages will drop 30 percent below those for comparable jobs at competing universities, libraries and government agencies.

Regent Connie Unseld, owner of a private Baltimore elementary school, cast the lone vote against the uncompensated extra hours. Her vote drew a three-minute standing ovation and shouts of praise. "At least she had the nerve to say no," said one protester.

Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg said he would ask campus presidents to consider options such as flexible starting times and four-day weeks to ease the personal hardships that the extra hours are expected to cause for some employees. His list of suggestions was met with hisses and jeers, prompting the regents to pound the gavel for order.

"Compensation!" one woman yelled from the back row of a largeauditorium at University College, where the meeting was moved because of the crowd. "How do you expect us to live?" asked another as the chancellor went down his list.

"They are not getting one extra minute out of me," a shaking Louise Benas, a secretary at the Center on Aging at College Park, said as she left the meeting. "I came to work here 12 years ago, and they have taken away every financial benefit. They will not get qualified people to work here."

"The time is at hand to consider other professional and personal options," said Linda Scovitch, executive aide to a vice president at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Statewide, the move to a 40-hour workweek affects more than 44,000 people. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is expected to file suit this morning against the regents and Mr. Schaefer in an effort to get a temporary court order halting the extension of the workweek.

A 40-hour week for all state agencies was ordered by Mr. Schaefer this spring to improve productivity during a budget squeeze and a hiring freeze. But a May 19 opinion by the attorney general's office said the university system has autonomy to set its own work hours and is not bound by the executive order.

Dr. Langenberg said the regents' action was a show of support for the governor's effort to deal with the budget problem. "The board understands the impact this will have on individual employees and appreciates their continued cooperation and service under trying circumstances," he said.

The vote came four months after a group of College Park women composed of top aides to deans and vice presidents began a campaign against the extended workweek that included mass mailings, television appeals and organized lobbying. They appeared before the regents three times to discuss the impact on employees' arrangements for child care and care for elderly relatives.

Joan Wood, chief aide to the dean of arts and humanities at College Park and one of the protesters, said the new policy will make it hard to attract high-quality workers and will hurt the university in the long run.

"I think the regents really believe they are acting in the best interests of the university, possibly by preventing retaliatory budget cuts by Governor Schaefer," she said. "But I don't think they are much concerned with the problems of running the university."

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