Irate workers jeer Neall over proposal to lay off 88 'Like throwing us to the wolves,' one tells executive

May 06, 1992|By Elise Armacost and Dennis O'Brien | Elise Armacost and Dennis O'Brien,Staff writers

Last year, County Executive Robert R. Neall honored Mackay Kirkley, a computer technician with the county Utilities Department, as "Employee of the Quarter."

Last week, Neall laid him off.

"I shook your hand, and you said you were going to take care of me in the spring," Kirkley told Neall yesterday at a meeting with 250 to 300 blue-collar county workers in Glen Burnie. "You gave me my walking papers on Friday."

Backlash against Neall's proposed 1993 budget, which would put 88 employees out of work, has hit full-force.

On Monday night, about 200 employees appeared before the County Council to oppose legislation, proposed by Neall, creating a formal policy on layoffs. Turnout has also been high at a series of four employee forums held by Neall this week.

Yesterday's Glen Burnie meeting was the most emotional of the three meetings held so far. Neall faced an angry sea of blue, as workers heckled and jeered his attempts to explain why he believes the work force should be reduced.

"This is like throwing us to the wolves," one worker told Neall.

At the council meeting Monday, some employees were close to tears as they spoke.

"You may go home and sleep well tonight. But what about the people whose lives are on the chopping block? Are you going to allow the guillotine to fall on them?" said Jorayn Bolfar, her voice choked with emotion.

Her remarks prompted a standing ovation.

Fifteen employees and their union leaders spoke against Neall's layoff bill, which outlines layoff procedures of county workers, essentially prohibiting workers due to be fired from bumping workers with less seniority in other departments.

An official hearing on the bill was postponed late Monday when Neall announced he was holding the measure for amendments that would allow workers to displace junior employees in other departments. The postponement came just a few hours before 150 angry county workers were due at the session to blast the bill.

Ray Wierschem, a utility worker due to be terminated as part of Neall's $634 million budget, said that by taking a promotion last fall at the Annapolis Water Reclamation Facility, he put himself into a job that will be cut.

"I've devoted a lot of blood, sweat and tears to my job over the years. Sure, Bob Neall wants to run for governor. All I want is fair consideration and to be able to provide a decent life for my wife and kids," he said.

Walter Caldwell, a 19-year Utility Department worker also due to get the ax, said when he found out Friday that he was to be laid off he had to see a physician for treatment of stress.

"I never thought I'd have to beg for my job, and I'm not going to," he said. "But please don't let this thing happen to us."

With 16 people put out of work, the Utilities Department was one of the hardest hit by last week's layoffs. The workers' jobs would be terminated July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

At the Glen Burnie forum, workers told Neall he ought to increase the piggyback tax or keep the 3 percent employee wage concession he plans to give back this year -- anything to keep people from losing their jobs.

They also blasted the executive's plans to privatize certain government functions, saying county workers can do the job better. And they questioned the executive's entire concept of down-sizing government.

Speaking before his employees, Neall repeated his belief that the size of government must be reduced to reflect a changing, smaller economy. "We've got to take a longer view of how many people in this government we need," he said.

After the meeting, workers said it's hard to take the "longer view" when you're worried about putting bread on the table.

"There ain't nothing secure any more," said Jerry Calabrese, a county maintenance worker.

Neall has never been popular with unions, but whatever support he once had is now gone, union members said.

"He lied to us," said Calabrese, one of many workers who believe that Neall promised never to lay off employees after they gave up 3 percent of their pay last year.

Neall, however, had limited his pledge not to lay off workers in exchange for wage concessions to the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Union leaders warned the council that passing a measure that could lead to more layoffs will spell political trouble for anyone connected with it.

"We at AFSCME don't forget our friends, but we remember our enemies, and come election-time, we will remember, and our enemies will get layoff notices," said Glenn Middleton, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 67.

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