Heat is on over workers' leave policy

August 26, 1993|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Staff Writer

When its broiling in Baltimore, maintenance workers for the city Housing Authority get something most others who labor in the heat can only dream about -- the afternoon off, with pay.

The workers' contract requires the Housing Authority to release them when the temperature reaches 90 by noon, with at least 55 percent humidity.

Yesterday marked the 17th time this summer when 430 maintenance workers were sent home at 1 p.m. -- at a total cost of more than $200,000.

It also marked the seventh time the Housing Authority had erred by releasing the workers when the official noon temperature was below 90. At noon yesterday, it was 89 degrees downtown, according to the National Weather Service.

Reginald Scriber, a Housing Authority official, conceded that the agency has been calling Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland to check the temperature instead of using the National Weather Service, the official source specified by the contract.

"This is a major blunder in this operation," Mr. Scriber said 2 1/2 hours after the workers went home early with a full day's pay. "Obviously, we are very upset about that. I will be looking at why this happened. There is something seriously wrong."

The policy of granting workers paid heat leave has raised concerns among top housing officials as they struggle to deal with a backlog of 30,000 work orders for repairs at the citys' public housing developments.

Daniel P. Henson III, director of the Housing Authority, said the policy is one reason the city lags behind on the work orders. He said he intends to focus on heat leave during contract negotiations with the maintenance workers next year.

"Nobody else gets off," Mr. Henson said. "If they don't give it up, we'll have a tough time. We'll have a tough discussion in a year or so.

"I've got a long waiting list of people who would love to come work for us and help us turn this thing around and wouldn't ask me for the heat leave."

Baltimore's Housing Authority is the only one of its kind in the country with paid heat leave for its maintenance workers, said Daryl Pertee, president of Local 647 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents the workers.

The Housing Authority's maintenance workers are employed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, not by the city. No city workers are entitled to paid heat leave.

A dwindling staff

Mr. Pertee disputed Mr. Henson's assertion that heat leave has contributed to the backlog of work orders.

There were once 1,000 maintenance workers, but the staff has dwindled under budget cuts and attrition to 547, far fewer than needed to maintain the Housing Authority's 18,300 units, he said.

"I really don't believe that heat leave is the cause of anything that is going on in housing right now. It's a lack of manpower," Mr. Pertee said.

He also said that heat leave was necessary to protect the workers' health.

"We have heat leave because of the conditions of working. . . . It's all the human factor -- these are human beings, not robots or machines and under certain conditions, people will break down," Mr. Pertee said. "It is different from city employees in the fact that at one time, the Housing Authority cared more for their employees than the city cared about its employees."

The average worker gets off 2 1/2 to three hours early each day the heat leave policy is invoked. Heat leave has been a part of contracts negotiated between the Housing Authority and AFSCME since 1963, Mr. Pertee said.

The backlog of work orders has plagued the city's public housing developments -- particularly the 18 older high-rises -- for years, Housing Authority officials said. At the Murphy Homes in West Baltimore, for example, there are more than 2,000 requests for maintenance each month and a current backlog of 1,639 repair orders.

Mr. Henson said work orders have increased dramatically at Flag House Courts in East Baltimore, a complex that was targeted for improved maintenance and security.

Records show the backlog in work orders is 4,829 a Hollander Ridge, 4,760 at O'Donnell Heights and 2,568 at Cherry Hill Homes. Rehabilitated rowhouses owned by the Housing Authority and other scattered sites have a combined backlog of 6,819 work orders.

Mr. Henson said the maintenance workers were given time off nine times during a midsummer reporting period that examined the Housing Authority's backlog of work orders.

But he stopped short of blaming the entire backlog on the AFSCME heat leave provision, saying, "We need more folks, we need better buildings, and we've gone through 12 years of voodoo economics."

The city Fire Department's long-standing heat rule states that if the temperature reaches 90 by 11 a.m., all training sessions and inspections of buildings for fire code violations are canceled.

Fire Department employees must continue to work indoors, however, said Lt. Thurman Pugh, who works in the department's public information office.

No relief for police

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