Lottery to determine which public housing residents will keep jobs

September 13, 1994|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,Sun Staff Writer

Public housing residents participating in a construction jobs training program that is at the center of a wage dispute had their names placed in a lottery yesterday to find out which ones would be laid off.

There were 73 participants in the Step Up program until the lottery reduced that number to 50. Housing Authority Executive Director Daniel P. Henson III said the participants' refusal to agree to cuts in their wage scale left him no viable alternative. "I can't pull $400,000 from a tree in my back yard," said Mr. Henson.

Most Step Up participants have been picketing City Hall daily since Thursday to protest an earlier Housing Authority directive to either accept wage reductions or be fired. Rita Wilburn, president of the Step Up employees association, said she expected the number of people picketing to increase, as those who had not participated in the protest found out they were still among those being laid off.

"I can't believe they did that. That's dirty, just plain dirty," said Arneathia Robinson, who was among those picketing yesterday.

Mr. Henson said the Housing Authority could not justify taking $400,000 from other programs to pay the Step Up participants the wages promised in agreements they signed when that project began.

He said the original agreements did include a top hourly wage of $11.75, but that was wrongly figured on the salaries and benefits paid to the journeymen construction workers teaching skills to Step Up participants.

Reducing that top wage to $8.50 was necessary to keep the program within its $3.3 million budget, Mr. Henson said.

He said the reduced wage was based solely on the journeymen's pay, not their benefits.

While no Step Up worker currently is making more than $7.25 an hour, the original agreement would have given each of them raises in two-month intervals that would peak at $11.75.

Mr. Henson said the authority didn't consider the original agreements binding contracts because, although the program participants signed them, they were not countersigned by Housing Authority officials.

"Some of the original paperwork was in error because we didn't have experience budgeting this type of program," Mr. Henson said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has said he supports Mr. Henson's decision to make layoffs to settle the wage dispute, but City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said yesterday that she stands with the Step Up participants.

"The [original] pay scale is not arbitrary," Mrs. Clarke said. "It's signed, sealed and delivered. Once you cut back, or try to, which is illegal, you've totally defeated the purpose of the program and created just another group of working poor."

Bill Tamburinno, director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Baltimore Office of Public Housing, said yesterday that it did not appear that reducing the Step Up wage scale would be illegal.

He said the proposed wage scale would still be within the minimums required under the Davis-Bacon Act. He said so long as that were true and the Housing Authority met its budget obligations under HUD guidelines, then that federal agency would not get involved in the dispute.

Mr. Henson said the Maryland Apprenticeship and Training Council, which monitors the Step Up program, advised the Housing Authority to reach consensus with the program participants over the pay dispute, but no agreement could be reached.

"If we have to live up to what was in the original documents, fine, but the only way to do that and continue the program is to reduce the number of workers," Mr. Henson said.

Mrs. Wilburn said the protest would continue if any workers were laid off.

"If 73 can't work, none of us should work," said Mrs. Robinson.

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