Wage dispute snarls city job training program

September 10, 1994|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,Sun Staff Writer

After only eight months, a job training program that promised to wean Baltimore public housing residents off government aid is in disarray, disrupted by a nasty dispute over wages.

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said yesterday that he would fire all 73 participants in the Step Up program rather than bend to a demand that their pay scale not be cut.

Meanwhile, about 35 participants picketed City Hall to protest any cut in their pay scale, and demanded that program director Samuel B. Little be fired.

Picketers, wearing red hard hats or baseball caps and red T-shirts with the Step Up logo, carried signs that read "Step Up is a Set Up" and "We Are Step Up and We Will Not Be Stepped On."

And as the dispute continues, many program participants have stopped working. Step Up workers had been doing demolition work in Northwest Baltimore, but only 14 workers were on the job yesterday, said Rita Wilburn, president of the Step Up employees association.

Participants and program officials are squabbling over Mr. Little's proposal to revise the original wage agreement, by cutting the top hourly wage from $11.75 to $8.50. Wages start at $6.75 per hour and rise gradually.

"We're going to keep on picketing until we get what they promised us in the original contract," Ms. Wilburn said.

But Mr. Henson said the picketing had led him to decide to fire all 73 workers, even the 21 who have agreed to the new pay scale. All 73 names will be entered into a lottery and the first 50 pulled from a hat will be rehired at the new scale, if they want the jobs, he said.

The $3.3 million Step Up program began in January with a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Public housing residents chosen for the program were given jobs as apprentice construction workers so they could learn a skill that might enable them to get off public assistance. The housing authority created a company called HABCO to employ Step Up participants, who have been learning construction skills while renovating public housing buildings.

The local program was designed for 50 public housing residents, Mr. Henson said, adding that the number swelled to 73 because program officials believed the ranks would fall through attrition.

When that didn't happen, a decision was made to reduce the pay scale rather than to lay off people, Mr. Henson said. But the workers would not agree to the cuts.

"We made a good faith effort," said Mr. Henson, who added that he was doing only what the operator of a construction company would do. "Some people just can't get past a welfare mentality. They always think they're owed something."

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he believed Mr. Henson's decision "made a lot sense." He said the housing commissioner was doing his best to solve a "technical issue" that arose because the program was trying to serve more people than planned.

About 40 Step Up participants were fired last week after they refused to sign new contracts with the reduced wage scale.

But Mr. Henson said all would be eligible for the jobs lottery when it occurred. He said he expected no more than a week's disruption in the program before workers were back on the job.

The original agreement that each Step Up participant signed included an hourly wage scale that began at $6.75 and increased in two-month increments to $7.25, $8, $9.25 and $11.75. After a year, each was expected to gain a journeyman job in the construction industry.

In July, Mr. Little sent a letter to the Maryland Apprenticeship and Training Council requesting a change in the documents setting up the program.

The letter said the Step Up pay scale should have been based on a percentage of the wages that the journeymen assigned to teach the participants would be making. Instead, the wage scale had been based wrongly on the journeymen's wages and benefits, the letter said.

To correct the error, Mr. Little asked program participants to sign new contracts including an hourly wage scale that would begin at $6.75, increase to $7.25 after four months, $7.75 after seven months and $8.50 after 10 months.

Mr. Little did not return phone calls yesterday requesting comment.

Mr. Henson said yesterday that there simply was not enough money to pay all 73 workers according to the original wage schedule.

He said HUD had given the housing authority sole power over the program. HUD officials were not available for comment.

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