County, unions clash over job transfer bill Proposal would allow shifts in lieu of layoffs

February 21, 1996|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Howard County employee representatives and the county personnel chief clashed last night over the interpretation of a bill that would allow employees to accept transfers to lower-paying jobs in lieu of layoffs.

The bill would provide flexibility for a county government faced with having to make severe cuts demanded by County Executive Charles I. Ecker and would "especially assist employees holding a position identified for elimination," Jimmie Saylor, the county's personnel administrator, told County Council members last night.

"It would allow for a smaller, restructured government without harm to county employees," Ms. Saylor said during a public hearing attended by about 100 people.

Employee representatives said the bill would do just the opposite. If the council passes the bill next month, "you'll be putting too many people in jeopardy," said Jean Reed, a lifelong Howard resident who has worked for the county for 24 years.

Ms. Reed said the bill is not about saving jobs but about saving money.

Although the bill has a clause to prevent employees from being transferred without their consent, the clause is not protective, Ms. Reed said. Employees will not volunteer for lower-paying jobs unless they are told they are going to be laid off, she said.

"I can't understand why anyone would take a pay cut unless told their job was going," she said. "You're leaving too much authority to the employer."

Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, said she, too, is concerned that the department heads or bureau chiefs could abuse the consent provision.

"Employers as a rule are sitting in the catbird seat," she said, "and government as an employer is even more daunting. If this is passed, we need to work with bureau chiefs and department heads to assure that consent [to a lower-paying transfer] is freely given and not made under duress."

George F. Gisin, staff representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO -- the parent of three county labor unions -- said the 400 county employees in those unions oppose the bill.

"Without exception, every one of our members says this legislation would be devastating to county employees," he said. "It would allow the government to target individual people for layoffs rather than positions."

Mr. Gisin said that if that happened, the bill could violate several portions of a contract the union recently negotiated with the county, because it would allow department heads to reduce the size of bargaining units by targeting union leaders for layoffs.

Mr. Gisin said he also was worried about what would happen to people who refused lower-paying jobs and were laid off. Those employees would be the first hired now if the positions were refilled, but that protection would be lost under the current bill, he said.

"I travel all over, and I can tell you that Howard County employees are the most dedicated in the state," he told council members. "If you search your hearts and minds and do what is best for employees, you will not pass this legislation."

The council is scheduled to vote on the bill March 4.

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