State thins ranks at old City Jail State takeover of operations spurs firings of workers.

July 23, 1991|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,Evening Sun Staff cpB

Shrene E. Burnett is a victim of the state takeover of the Baltimore City Jail. After 11 years as an administrative assistant at the jail, Burnett was fired July 3, two days after state officials took over. She still doesn't know why.

"There's no logical, clear-cut reason," Burnett said. "Nobody seems to know the reason, or they say, 'I don't know the reason."

Burnett is one of several jail employees who worked for the city but were quickly let go by the state after the July 1 takeover.

The General Assembly, in approving the state takeover, gave state officials great power to dismiss the 850 employees at the jail during a six-month probationary period. The employees were left without the usual protections of the state's personnel laws. Employees who are given permanent state jobs will have lost all seniority and benefits they had built up as city employees.

"It's extremely unfair," said Joseph Cook, field director for the Maryland Classified Employees Association, a union trying to organize workers at the jail.

Cook and other union officials say that state officials may be using the transition to get rid of good, loyal employees for vindictive or minor reasons.

"What we're afraid of is that the supervisors there feel this six-month period can be used to get rid of any employee they don't like," said Rudy Porter, an organizer with the Maryland Correctional Union, which also is trying to organize newly hired state employees.

State officials at the old City Jail, now called the Baltimore City Detention Center, did not return several phone calls over the past few days to discuss the status of employees at the jail.

Burnett, 41, worked as the chief aide to William Manning, the former associate commissioner at the jail. Manning and jail Commissioner Barbara Bostick were not offered jobs in the state regime. Burnett defended her record at the jail and noted that she had taken only a handful of sick-leave days in 11 years.

"I was looking forward to working for the state," Burnett said. "I was kind of surprised when I didn't make it three days into the new management."

Gov. William Donald Schaefer proposed a state takeover of the jail as a way of easing Baltimore's financial burden.

The state's first week running the jail was marred by the mistaken release of an inmate and the apparently drug-related death of a second prisoner.

State public safety Secretary Bishop L. Robinson, who is now in charge of the city jail, told state lawmakers last month that he wanted to keep qualified employees.

"We want to retain key staff," Robinson said. "We want to retain as many people as we can."

Burnett, who lives in East Baltimore, has appealed her firing to a state hearing officer. All she has to go on is a terse termination letter handed her July 3. She was given two weeks' pay and told to leave the building that day.

James L. Wiggins, president of the now-defunct city jail board, said the state may indeed be firing some good employees. But overall, he said, that may be a small price considering the huge savings the city will see by turning the jail over to the state.

"Sometimes you sacrifice the few for the benefit of the many," Wiggins said.

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