End of a deal on jobs Government work no longer promises secuity in Md.

July 14, 1996|By Scott Wilson

FOR 23 YEARS, Richard Rush was a ditch digger for Baltimore County's Department of Highways. He was proud of it. And of the good life civil service afforded a Parkton boy with a high school diploma and reasonable expectations.

But what Rush valued above all, more than his weekend house on the Virginia shore, was the peace of mind derived from a dependable pay check. An annual salary of $28,000 would never make him rich. But what private company, the kind that laid off his father, could beat the benefits that guaranteed long days fishing the Virginia shoals in retirement? "When I started I thought I could work for 50 years without a problem," Rush says. "That's why I took the job in the first place -- security."

Today job security in government work is obsolete in Maryland. At 42, Rush chose early retirement this year rather than wait for what appeared to be inevitable layoffs. So did 300 of his colleagues. "The money just kept getting tighter," Rush says.

Civil service, once a metaphor for a safe job and a comfortable retirement, is ending as a generation of Richard Rushes understood it.

Personnel reforms now sweeping many Baltimore metropolitan counties signal the demise of a prescribed labor code dating back to the 1880s, when the so-called spoils system of patronage gave way to a civil service insulated from political whim. Now a private-sector system, which allows room for political influence, is replacing it to shrink public payrolls by millions of dollars.

And the politics have changed, turning civil servants into scapegoats for heavy government spending. So has the public. "America is in a surly mood," says Allen Schick, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. "And you don't wear a badge of honor when your employer isn't esteemed anymore."

Municipal employees, largely unprotected by Maryland's traditionally weak public-sector labor unions, have watched Democratic and Republican administrations remove the core of the compact between taxpayers and workers: a modest salary in exchange for job security and a pension.

Annual pay raises, once guaranteed, are now being linked to on-the-job performance. More years of work are being required for retirement. Raises for passing time-served milestones are being eliminated, and pensions cut. Several municipalities -- Baltimore city and county, specifically -- are cashiering workers to shave payrolls.

The short-term result is unrest, and perhaps, a resurgent public-sector labor movement. In the long run, the changes may translate into a less enthusiastic work force charged with protecting private property and teaching the majority of Maryland children to read.

"The days when you had a job with government for a lifetime are gone," said Charles I. Ecker, Howard County's Republican county executive. "You are going to see more and more turnover in government, and it's going to be more like business."

Think of public employment as an asymptote, a line that approaches but never crosses an axis. Through the heady 1970s and 1980s, the line charting pay rose steeply as it approached a ceiling, then began flattening out in recent years as raises became more gradual.

The thought was that the line would never reach its limit -- the counties' ability to pay -- as revenues grew incrementally each year, just approach it forever. But in Maryland the axis has been crossed in a number of counties that can no longer sustain payrolls as property taxes barely track inflation. "The chickens are coming home to roost," says E. Hilton Wade, Anne Arundel's personnel officer.

Pay and benefits often consume more than two-thirds of annual county spending. In Maryland, public-sector weekly pay exceeds the average private sector salary by about $150.

Through this, Anne Arundel's Republican government has been pioneering in cutting costs. At County Executive John G. Gary's request, the Republican-majority County Council has linked future pay raises to performance for the county's 3,500 employees. The county's $750 million pension system is next. Plans for a second, less generous retirement plan for new employees have labor leaders predicting severe strain between veterans and newcomers over compensation.

But the county mood has already turned hostile. The administration has spent as much time in court recently as an Arkansas politician -- defending itself from a spate of lawsuits filed by its own employees. And the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, organized labor's traditional strong arm, is recruiting disgruntled county workers who were battered at the bargaining table this spring.

"Anxiety is so high and morale is so low that they are reaching out for anything that offers an iota of hope," said Dennis P. Howell, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 70, whose 500 members are considering a switch to the Teamsters. A union poll revealed that the average Anne Arundel police officer works at least two additional jobs.

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