Driving to work could mean loss of job

July 18, 1992|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

Proposed rules to battle air pollution could, in extreme cases, give Baltimore-area employers the right to fire workers who refused to take such steps as car pooling or working at home, lawyers said yesterday.

"There is no constitutional right to drive," said Ron Taylor, an attorney at Venable, Baetjer & Howard in Baltimore. "But people hold it pretty close" to their hearts, he said.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has drafted rules requiring employers with work sites with more than 100 workers to come up with plans by 1994 to slash the number of cars or other private vehicles used by employees to get to work.

The proposed rules were prompted by the 1990 federal Clean Air Act and were designed to cut the emissions of ozone during the morning rush hour. The goal, which specifically calls for employers to boost by 25 percent the ratio of employees to vehicles, must be achieved by 1996.

State officials say it is much too soon to conclude that workers will have to choose between their cars or their jobs. Michael Sullivan, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment said companies would be able to use incentives to get workers to car pool or use mass transit, or might let workers work at home or come to work after 10 a.m., when the rush hour is over.

"There are all kinds of alternatives an employer can use," Mr. Sullivan said. He said the department chose not to deal yet with the question of how employers could force workers to help them comply with the new rules, because it assumes voluntary measures and incentives can get the job done.

"It probably won't be as burdensome as it now sounds," he said.

The draft rules would give the department the authority to fine employers who did not cut into the number of miles their employees drive. In extreme cases, penalties for employers could include two years in prison. If employers -- in an effort to avoid fines -- made participating in a "trip reduction plan" a condition of employment, there would be nothing to stop them.

"They [employers] have got a lot of leeway," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Taylor explained that most workers are subject to "employment at will," a common law doctrine that allows employees to quit their jobs -- or be fired -- for any reason, as long as the reason is not barred by law or clear public policy.

Barry Steel, a labor lawyer in Towson, said employees organized in unions might see commuting matters ending up as collective-bargaining issues.

Although commuting technically is something employees do on non-company time, that does not mean employers cannot regulate it, Mr. Comstock-Gay said. He said that when companies' policies refusing employment to smokers came under criticism, for example, it took a specific law to bar the practice.

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