Balto. Co. layoffs' legacy: fear, relief and lawsuits

June 09, 1994|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer

Seven months of unemployment after losing his job with Baltimore County in the layoffs of 1993 make Michael J. Smith happy to be back in county employ.

But it's a heavily qualified joy.

Before returning to the county payroll in October, the 43-year-old mechanical engineer had to use all of his retirement savings to survive. And he earns $14,000 a year less -- a 30 percent pay cut -- in his less-skilled job reviewing building plans for fire safety.

Part-time consulting work helped him survive, he said, but the reality of starting over is made clear with every paycheck.

"I guess it's something that Americans are just going to have to get used to," he said. "It's tough at my age to start all over again."

In the 16 months since 290 Baltimore County workers lost their jobs, 82 have been rehired -- at their old jobs or at new, often lower-paying ones. County Executive Roger B. Hayden's budget-cutting reorganization eliminated 566 positions, of which 392 were filled at the time.

After senior workers "bumped" junior employees and other vacant county jobs were filled, 290 full-time employees lost their jobs and 38 part-time hourly library clerks were laid off.

Fifty laid-off workers retired after their jobs were eliminated, and scores of others have found jobs elsewhere.

Thirty-seven people have been recalled to their old jobs at the same or higher pay, figures provided by the county personnel office show. Some of them lost their jobs indirectly, when more senior workers bumped them into unemployment.

Among the 45 rehired in new county jobs through May, many, like Mr. Smith, had to settle for less senior positions and lower pay. The pay cuts ranged from 80 cents an hour to a $26,000 annual pay reduction for a former $57,807-a-year division chief who is now a management assistant.

None of the 25 full-time librarians laid off in February 1993 have come back to work for the county, although several part-time hourly library workers have returned, library director Charles Robinson said.

Not all employees involved in the layoffs are unhappy about what happened afterward.

Nancy L. Hastings, a Hayden campaign worker whose $14.42-an-hour job in the Office of Communications was eliminated, said she wasn't surprised or angry. She already was off for an extended period recovering from surgery and had expected her job to go, she said.

Ms. Hastings, who is not her family's sole support, returned to work in the community development office in May 1993 for $11.52 an hour. This year, she is running for the Republican nomination for the House of Delegates in the new 6th District.

"It's been a positive experience," she said of her county employment, layoff and return. "This happens in the private sector."

John W. Slough, 49, a 15-year county engineering associate when he lost his job, regained it four months after the layoffs -- with a $2,300-a-year pay raise

"It's great to be back," he said. "I'm not a teen-ager. I couldn't buy a job" in the private sector.

Mr. Slough called his layoff "a kick in the teeth" and said he feels lucky to be back.

Still, even after a year of re-employment, the sense of security he enjoyed before Feb. 11, 1993, has not returned. "It was the first time I've ever been unemployed in my life," he said.

The legality of the layoffs still is being contested in several lawsuits brought by former employees and their unions. A Circuit Court trial isn't expected before fall.

Janice B. Outen, a former middle-level official in the Department of the Environment, still is out of work and is devoting her energy to helping prepare one of those lawsuits.

A county employee for 17 years before the layoffs, Ms. Outen, 42, believes the dismissals were politically motivated -- a purge of "professional employees who made sure the county's interests were protected" against politicians. She said the courts will vindicate her view that the cutbacks were wrong and unneeded.

Ms. Outen said the layoffs saved the county $1.1 million during fiscal year 1993 and that the county spent the equivalent of its first year's salary savings of $12.8 million on capital budget expenses this year. Now, she said, Mr. Hayden has authorized $30 million in pay increases for next year and has created a $29 million surplus rainy day fund.

County officials argue that the layoffs weren't designed to achieve short-term savings but to prepare the county for leaner years ahead. A $12.8 million yearly savings will be cumulative over the years, they said.

This year, Budget Director Fred Homan stressed to the County Council the need for a surplus fund to guard against more state budget cuts. He said it is estimated that the state will develop a $1 billion deficit in the next four years if nothing changes.

That doesn't make Ms. Outen feel any better.

"I feel betrayed for years of hard work," she said.

But she said she stayed angry only a week after losing her job.

"With me, it's 'Go solve a problem,' " she said. "I put my energies into something positive. The courts will come back with justice. I have complete faith."

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