As ax nears, laid-off UM workers ponder their fate

November 03, 1991|By Michael K. Burns | Michael K. Burns,Sun Staff Correspondent

COLLEGE PARK -- Come January, Desiree Jefferson faces the loss of the clerical job she held at the University of Maryland for 22 years and the health insurance she relied on for herself and her two teen-age children.

"Maybe I'll have to collect unemployment, but that's not going to pay for health insurance," she said. The monthly premium of $300 or more to continue her health coverage is beyond the reach of an already tight family budget that requires her to work a second job as a housekeeper at night.

Nicholas Mikjaluk's second child was born this year, with some worrisome medical problems, and his wife has had a heart problem. Although he hopes to find new employment, the warehouse employee says, "In our family, the primary worry is the health coverage, if something should happen."

It's Hobson's choice for Rosalie Jones-Pilkerton: She will lose health insurance in January when her job as a word processor is eliminated, but she lacks the sick leave days to have a necessary operation now. "I'll have the time then, but no coverage. That's a worry."

Health insurance is a major concern of 67 people who this month got notice that they will lose their jobs at the University of Maryland at College Park in January, the result of severe state budget cuts. Under federal law, they are eligible for continued coverage for 18 months if they pay the full premiums now mostly borne by their employer.

"Realistically, a lot of people can't afford to pay for health insurance when they don't have a job," says Jeff Bigelow, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, which represents workers on campus.

7+ "That is a real fear for many of them."

Blind cuts, or targets?

Anger, resentment, bewilderment -- these are other emotions felt by those who got the notice Oct. 15 that they would no longer work at the institution that had never laid off employees.

They accused the school of using a narrowly defined, rigid job classification system that prevented them from "bumping" into jobs held by employees with fewer years of service. Individuals were pinpointed for discharge, rather than job functions, they charge.

"People would think it was a lot fairer if they did it by when you were hired," said Ms. Jones-Pilkerton.

The layoff system, she said, gave supervisors "a chance to get rid of who they wanted to."

A five-year employee who supervised other scientific word processors, she blamed rumors spread by her estranged

husband for the department's decision to terminate her position.

College Park officials say the positions targeted for elimination are those the campus has decided are the least essential to the mission of each department, and have nothing to do with the abilities of the employees involved.

"They were absolutely not performance related," said Dale O. Anderson, director of personnel services at College Park.

Jan Koelling, a campus building inspector, said the layoffs wiped out the four-man section he works in. "They were very careful to eliminate specific positions that would eliminate specific people. They were vindictive."

The inspector group had long been unpopular with the physical plant department, Mr. Koelling said, because the inspectors would uncover numerous repairs and safety problems that needed attention. "Our group always kept a clean record, because we had this threat hanging over us."

For Ms. Jefferson, that threat had been hanging over her head for more than 15 years after a disagreement with her supervisor.

"I figured I would work here for life, as long as I did my job well," she said. "I didn't think they could do it."

When talk of layoffs began this summer, and she was not given training on the new office equipment, she saw it coming. "I guess I knew it would be me, regardless of my time here."

Mr. Mikjaluk had worked as a warehouse storekeeper for only three years, so he was not high on the seniority list.

But he, too, feels the layoffs were "based on politics."

"They are cutting at the meat," people who could do the work and loved their jobs, he said. Employees who were eligible for retirement were kept on, while younger people were let go, he said. In the summer, he lost the temporary promotion slot he held for 16 months, apparently to clear the way for eliminating him and his permanent position in the layoffs.

Although technically classified as layoffs, instead of discharges, the positions of the 67 employees will disappear forever from the university budget, explained AFSCME local President Sally Davies. Most of the workers will have no hope of coming back to those jobs, or to "bump" to similar positions in other parts of the university system, she said. "They are fired, period."

So far, only three have been able to bump into other jobs, said chief shop steward Craig E. Newman. The others either cannot qualify for any other jobs in their departments or they lack the seniority to bump out other employees, he said.

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