Fairness of port agency layoffs questioned Union cites flawed personnel system

October 04, 1991|By John H. Gormley Jr.

Last year, the Maryland Port Administration gave mechanical engineer Joseph P. Sisolak Jr. a certificate of commendation and a $500 check for outstanding performance. Last week, the port agency gave Mr. Sisolak a layoff notice.

He says his layoff is unjust, that MPA managers included him among the cuts because of his age and health. And the circumstances of Mr. Sisolak's layoff help illustrate some of the problems at an agency whose difficulties are more than just financial.

Rank and file employees, union officials and even the top officials of the agency agree that the personnel system at the agency has been very seriously mismanaged in the past few years. And those problems with the personnel system have greatly complicated the job of deciding who gets laid off and who stays.

Josette Powell, vice president of the Maryland Classified Employees Association chapter that represents workers at the MPA, questions how the MPA can fairly judge performance given the failings of the personnel system.

"It hasn't worked from Day 1," she said of the evaluation system. "How can you say it's me who has to go?"

A specialist in heating and ventilation, Mr. Sisolak came up with a simple, low-cost way for the port agency to reduce energy costs at its Point Breeze offices in Dundalk. His calculations showed that by coating windows with solar screening material, less sunlight would penetrate in the summer and less heat would escape in the winter, saving the state about $600 a month.

Even though the MPA adopted the idea and continues to reap the benefits of it, when the time came this fall to cut jobs, Mr. Sisolak, 60, found himself among the 46 employees asked to leave by the end of this month. He has worked 12 years at the MPA and says less-senior engineers will keep their jobs. "They're looking for more production from the younger people," he said.

Three years ago, the MPA adopted a performance-based personnel system to help make the work climate of the agency more like that of a private company. Employees were to be evaluated twice a year, and pay increases would be based on performance.

It never worked out that way.

"It was botched," said Royce Treadaway, president of the MPA chapter of the MCEA.

She said that the MPA's employee handbook requires evaluations twice a year. The first is intended to give the employee a chance to hear criticism and to work to improve the score of the final, crucial rating at the end of the year. But actual practice varied widely. Some employees were evaluated once a year and others not at all.

Adrian G. Teel, executive director of the MPA, concedes that severe flaws in the personnel system have undermined employee morale. "There needs to be an awful lot of work on the personnel system," he said. Of the performance evaluation system, he said, "It has not been properly implemented in all cases. It needs significant strengthening."

Despite the flaws of the evaluation system, he defended the fairness of the process he used for determining who would be laid off. The first consideration was what jobs rather than what people had to go. Where the question arose of which union members would be cut, seniority rather than performance was the deciding factor in all but about three or four cases, he said. That's because very few of the evaluations classified employees as poor performers, leading him to believe the evaluators had not been very strict.

While defending the layoff process, Mr. Teel said that a big part of his job in the coming months will be improving morale, and that means fixing the personnel system from top to bottom, including re-examining job classifications, speeding up the grievance process and developing a fair evaluation system.

"I can't change the past," he said. "I recognize it's a problem. We're going to change" procedures.

Ms. Treadaway and Ms. Powell say that Mr. Teel has done a great deal to restore a sense of trust. "They inherited a mess, an absolute mess," Ms. Powell said. "They're doing the best they can with a bad situation."

They said that the Teel administration has opened communications, kept its promises and shown much more compassion for employees than other state agencies faced with big cutbacks have.

"They've been admirable in how they have proven their integrity in this," Ms. Treadaway said. "I think these gentlemen want a team. The only way you get that is through loyalty."

Mr. Teel said he realizes a spirit of mutual respect will last only if he fulfills his promises, including resolving the problems with the personnel system.

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