Heat leave is suspended for Housing Authority staff

August 27, 1993|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Staff Writer

The chief of Baltimore's Housing Authority yesterday scrapped the policy of granting maintenance workers "heat leave," saying they can't be given time off when there is a backlog of 30,000 requests for repairs in public housing.

Daniel P. Henson III, the authority's executive director, indefinitely suspended a provision in the workers' contract that gives them the rest of the day off if the temperature reaches 90 degrees or higher with 55 percent humidity by noon.

He cited a clause in the contract that allows the authority to keep its 430 maintenance workers on in emergency situations.

"The vital interest is the backlog of work orders and other things we need to deal with," Mr. Henson said. "I'm sure there will be some backlash over this, but I'm not sure what it will be."

The suspension was met promptly with a grievance from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees for violation of the labor contract between the Housing Authority and the workers.

The union maintains that Mr. Henson's order violates the workers' contract. AFSCME officials also charged that Mr. Henson's action is a ruse to jump-start stalled salary negotiations between the union and the authority.

The employees, who have a no-strike clause in the contract, were advised by AFSCME officials to continue working under protest until their shift ended at 4 p.m. Yesterday, the temperature reached 96 at noon, and by 3 p.m. it had soared to 99 degrees.

At least eight workers sought treatment for heat-related injuries, union officials said.

"The Housing Authority has been in trouble for a while, and they have tried continuously to lay the blame on the workers," said Daryl Pertee, president of AFSCME Local 647, which represents the blue-collar maintenance workers. "The whole heat leave scandal was created to divert attention from legitimate issues such as gross mismanagement and being ridiculously understaffed. I think someone is blowing hot air at the press."

Under the terms of the heat leave provision, the housing employees, who earn an average wage of nearly $9 per hour, are dismissed with pay at 1 p.m. whenever the heat leave is called, the contract states.

So far this summer, the workers have been granted heat leave 17 times at a total cost of more than $200,000 to the taxpayers. Records show, however, that the Housing Authority erred on seven days because the agency was using an inaccurate source to check the city's noon temperature and not the National Weather Service, as the contract states.

Reginald Scriber, assistant to Mr. Henson, said the Housing Authority expected a protest from the maintenance workers over the suspended policy, which Mr. Pertee said has been a part of the union's contract with the authority for 30 years.

"We did not expect the union to take this lying down," Mr. Scriber said. "We anticipated there would be some feedback."

From Lafayette Courts in East Baltimore to Lexington Terrace and George P. Murphy Homes in West Baltimore yesterday, workers reacted angrily to the order to stay on the job.

A painter, Kevin Humes, said he was suspended and ordered to leave his job as after he criticized the order during an interview with a television reporter. Another painter, Julius Durang, said the heat made him dizzy and nauseated.

"This is another act of failure to communicate from Henson," said John McCormack, a shop steward at Lafayette Courts. "It's in our contract in black and white, and now they think they can change it."

A worker at Lexington Terrace said he planned to do as little as possible on hot afternoons. "I'm going to work at my own pace -- you can't tell me how fast to do it," he said.

Mr. Henson said last week that he plans to address heat leave as part of contract negotiations next year with the AFSCME local. The unit is currently working under a contract extension from a pact that took effect in June 1990.

Mr. Scriber denied AFSCME charges that the heat leave suspension was made in an attempt to break the union.

"We have a need in the Housing Authority to provide decent, safe housing to our residents," he said. "With 30,000 back orders plus the emergency situations every day, we cannot afford to have employees go home on heat leave. The union is wrong in this matter."

Authority officials say they suspect that many of the 30,000 back work orders are duplicates. However, they admitted they have no way of knowing because they do not have the staff to sort through 30,000 slips of paper.

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