Employees are angered by report Consultant said county workers might be overpaid

Time for damage control

Lack of morale and fear of layoffs cited in interviews

June 28, 1996|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County's top two elected officials are trying to soothe angry workers in the wake of a consultant's report that says county employees might be overpaid and that many do not work enough hours.

But even as County Executive Charles I. Ecker and County Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown -- both Republicans -- scrambled to do damage control this week, they pledged to go ahead with sweeping changes to the personnel system as suggested in the report.

Many of the county's 1,800 employees were angry and disappointed by news of this week's report by the Organizational Consulting Center at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Diego.

The report says county employees might be overpaid by 18 percent when compared with other local governments. It recommended eliminating longevity bonuses, spreading out step raises and freezing salaries of employees who make more than peers in other counties.

The $55,000 report made many other suggestions that, if implemented, would change nearly everything about how county employees are classified, evaluated and paid.

"I drive a used car, and I live in an aging, one-bedroom condo," said Steve Bockmiller, a county planner, earning $33,000 a year. "If I'm overpaid, I'd hate to see what the private sector is doing."

Many others said similar -- and in some cases, far harsher --

things in interviews yesterday, but would not give their names, saying they feared retaliation from supervisors if they spoke out.

In general, they said morale among county workers is very low because of the report and other things, including fear of layoffs, increasing work loads and raises that have grown rarer and smaller in recent years.

Even before the report was issued, the June edition of the county's own worker newsletter, The Daily Grind, did an article on employee morale. Most of the employees, quoted anonymously, said it was low.

"I think employees feel that they give the county their best," said one typical quote, "and the county doesn't care."

This week, employees took special offense at a comment by Drown, printed in The Sun.

He said county workers have a "union mentality" characterized by the attitude, " 'I do my job from 9 to 5, and after that I go home. If it takes an extra 10 or 15 minutes, I don't do it.' "

In the past two days, employees handed out photocopies of the article with Drown's quote highlighted. Some posted it in the bathroom. Others called or wrote to Drown to complain.

George Gisin, a staffer for the union representing 300 county mechanics, snowplow drivers and others, demanded an apology.

"He should come down from his ivory tower and spend some time with the employees," Gisin said. "I think he owes every employee in this county an apology."

Democratic Councilman C. Vernon Gray, who like Drown is considering a run for county executive in 1998, took a shot at him, too.

"What does he want, slave labor?" Gray said. "It's an anti-worker attitude and it's consistent with the whole Republican mentality."

In an interview yesterday, Drown apologized for his comment, saying that many employees work long and hard, and admitted he shouldn't have used the term "union mentality."

"I have no problem apologizing for it," Drown said. " 'Union mentality' may be the wrong term. I should have said 'old mentality.' "

Both Drown and Ecker favor a system in which supervisors have more power to set the wages of subordinates based on evaluations. Drown said those who oppose such a system have an "old mentality" that favors equal rewards to all workers, regardless of performance.

He said that Gray had that "old mentality."

"There are better employees, and there are worse employees, and I think we ought to reward those who do a better job," Drown said. "Vernon [Gray] is a status quo politician."

Ecker sought to reassure county employees through an electronic mail message he sent out Wednesday. In it, he said news accounts of the personnel report were misleading.

"I don't believe for one second, and the report did not say, that our employees are overpaid and under-worked," the message stated.

Ecker made similar comments in an interview yesterday, praising county employees as "tremendous" and "dedicated."

But he said he will reserve judgment on whether county workers are overpaid until the completion of another study due in the fall. The county is paying $145,000 for more detailed analyses and suggestions on several personnel issues. If that report shows county workers are overpaid, Ecker and Drown favor freezing the salaries of those who make more than the market rate until the market catches up.

They also favor a performance-based pay system and moving all county employees to a 40-hour work week. Both are central recommendations of the report, which said that employees now get raises with little regard to merit and that 38 percent of employees work just 35 hours each week.

County employees' salaries compared

TOP OFFICIALS:

County Executive Charles I. Ecker, $84,250

County Solicitor Barbara Cook, $98,164

Public Works Director James Irvin, $98,164

Chief Administrative Officer Raquel Sanudo, $93,455

Police Chief James N. Robey, $86,792

County Council members (part-time) $28,900

Council Chairman Darrel E. Drown (part-time) $29,900

EMPLOYEES:

Accountant: $30,773 to $58,446

Building inspector: $23,412 to $38,427

Clerk typist: $15,805 to $25,269

Engineer: $30,773 to $64,541

Firefighter: $25,739 to $46,393

Maintenance mechanic: $23,716 to $38,842

Police officer: $26,532 to $45,492

Secretary: $19,747 to $29,260

SOURCE: Howard County government

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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