Too hot to work?

August 27, 1993

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III's unilateral decision to cancel "heat days" is sure to cause much grumbling among the 430 Housing Authority maintenance workers who no longer can quit -- with pay -- every time the temperature reaches 90 degrees by noon and humidity registers at least 55 percent.

Let them grumble.

If there is any scandal in Mr. Henson's decision, it is in the fact that this extraordinary featherbedding clause was allowed to exist for 30 years without any whistle blower making a big stink about it earlier.

Like Baltimore longshoremen's "rainy day" boondoggle -- which allowed them to quit every time a drop fell and played havoc with the orderly operation of the port itself -- the Housing Authority maintenance workers' "heat days" were manifestations of union chutzpah at the expense of general good.

To make matters worse, the Housing Authority failed to call the Weather Service, as required by the contract, to find out the temperature. Instead it get readings from the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. and ended up sending maintenance workers home on seven days this summer when the temperature had not even reached 90 degrees.

Mr. Henson has now put an end to all this by invoking a contract clause that permits changes in the "heat day" if it is in "vital interest" of the city.

"It seems that 30,000 work orders are a vital interest," he said, referring to the huge backlog of work the maintenance workers have piled on.

Local 647 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the workers, says the backlog is due to the maintenance staff having shrunk from 1,000 to 547 because of budget cuts and attrition.

Some of the backlog may indeed be due to those causes. But we suspect much of the undone work has accumulated because for years no housing commissioner has taken the trouble to find out why things are not getting done.

If they had, they would have discovered the unique "heat day" clause which has no counterpart in any other city contract or private-sector maintenance agreements.

Well done, Mr. Henson.

What is needed next is a thorough review of other municipal contracts. Who knows what they may contain without anyone ever having bothered to find out.

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