Clinic workers warn city of resignations

December 29, 1993|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

Employees of Baltimore health clinics who work to contain tuberculosis, AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases have warned of widespread resignations unless complaints over new job classifications are remedied.

But City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said yesterday that she hoped to avert a crisis by asking the Board of Estimates today to approve changes that would satisfy many of the grievances. These would include immediate life insurance, disability and prescription drug coverage.

"I'm very worried," she said. "We're talking about people leaving."

Both the workers and their bosses agree on one thing: The employees perform unglamorous but essential work, testing and treating city residents -- most of them poor -- for diseases that could spread widely through the community if left untended.

Baltimore's tuberculosis clinic, located on Caroline Street in East Baltimore, has won a national reputation for keeping a lid on an epidemic that has swept other cities such as New York and Newark, N.J. It is given much of the credit for limiting new drug-resistant TB cases to about one a year.

All told, about 100 nurses, social workers, laboratory technicians, epidemiologists and other public health workers would be affected by a plan to end a 13-year arrangement by which they were technically employed by Union Memorial Hospital.

The hospital provided management services for Baltimore, including the administration of federal grants that paid for much of the work performed at two sexually transmitted disease clinics and the TB clinic.

But the city allowed the contract with Union Memorial to expire Monday, when the employees were individually asked to accept or reject a new arrangement in which they would work directly for the city.

Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city health commissioner, said he pushed for the change to end what he said was an inequitable system, noting that employees of Union Memorial worked alongside people employed by the city -- with the two groups earning different salaries and benefits.

He said about two-thirds of the former Union Memorial employees would see a reduction in pay that could range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, but he promised a case-by-case salary review in 1994 to see if some of the salaries should be upgraded.

It was difficult, he said, to match employees with appropriate civil service classifications. The result, he said, was salary losses for some people and gains for others.

All employees would have "richer" benefits under their city employment, he said, although they would have to wait a year to qualify for life insurance and disability benefits and six months for their prescription coverage.

Dr. Beilenson said workers could choose from a more attractive array of health plans and would pay less for them.

"We don't want to lose anybody," said Dr. Beilenson. "We just wanted to bring everybody in line as a fairness issue, so nurses and epidemiologists and everybody else is paid the same."

Several employees said yesterday they had accepted the jobs to keep their paychecks flowing but planned to seek new employment. Some complained of salary cuts, others of having to pay $100 a month out of their own pockets to continue life insurance and prescription coverage until the city benefits kick in.

"I'm going to find another job," said Walt Jones, a supervising nurse at the tuberculosis clinic who accepted his job classification Monday. "We all feel like we've been insulted. Everybody here can make more money somewhere else. We've never made as much money as we could in a hospital. We are here because we are all interested in tuberculosis control and want to make a difference."

Mr. Jones said he would actually receive a $2,000 raise but resented having to wait for benefits and losing the 2 1/2 years he had earned toward vesting his pension rights. Also, he said, Union Memorial granted pension rights after five years of employment. In city employment, it takes 11 years.

George Brubach, a TB nurse who works in the Baltimore City Detention Center, said he accepted his new job despite a pay cut of "a few thousand dollars." But he has refused to enter the jail again until his life insurance takes effect. "They ask me to put my life on the line," Mr. Brubach said. "Four people were stabbed in the city jail last year and they offer me no life insurance. It's more than the monetary difference."

Today, the Board of Estimates is scheduled to approve or reject job classifications that would make the job transfers official. Mrs. Clarke said the board faces a dilemma: The job transfers may be less than ideal, but rejecting them outright would leave employees without anyone to sign their paychecks.

She said she will propose that all employees who qualified before for benefits would get them immediately under civil service. Also, employees protesting their job classifications could get a prompt review; auditors would be required to report back to the Board of Estimates by March 30.

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