95 seek extra pay for longer workweek County workers set to testify before panel

December 17, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

Almost 100 county employees who had work hours increased earlier this year without receiving additional pay say the Gary administration owes them raises totaling $400,000 a year.

In a hearing tonight before the county Personnel Board, 95 blue-collar and clerical union members will testify that the Gary administration broke county law by increasing their work hours from 35 to 40 a week without a corresponding raise. The five-member board, which County Executive John G. Gary appoints, is expected to issue its opinion next month.

A large turnout is expected, but county officials could not move the hearing from a small room in the Riva Road complex to the larger Council Chambers downtown because of a scheduling conflict.

"People are very, very upset," said Jim Bestpitch, president of AFSCME Local 582. "It's going to be very emotional."

If their bid for a raise is successful, the employees stand to make an average of $3,850 more each year.

The grievances could undermine a key policy in Gary's effort to reduce payroll costs, which account for 75 percent of Anne Arundel's budget. In September, the County Council passed legislation that, among other things, required all 3,500 Anne Arundel employees to work 40 hours a week.

"The county unilaterally demanded that unions take this pay cut," said F. J. Collins, a lawyer with the Baltimore firm Kahn, Smith & Collins, representing the employees. "This was discussed at the bargaining table. But the language does not appear in the contract."

Before September, Anne Arundel's county code stated that 35-hour-a-week employees rescheduled to work 40 hours a week are "entitled to a salary increase of 14.2857 percent" to cover the additional time.

But Gary's personnel bill removed that provision three months after the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Locals 2563 and 582, signed one-year contracts with the county. The bargaining units represent more than 1,200 county workers.

The contracts included lump-sum bonuses for most union members, but no increase in their annual base pay. Members of Local 2563, the clerical union, who had their hours increased received a one-time $600 bonus. All 841 blue-collar members of Local 582 received $400.

County attorneys, who claim union negotiators agreed to waive the required raise during contract talks, say the administration would have violated the existing contract if it had repealed the provision before negotiations.

"You can't change the code and sign the contract simultaneously," said Diane Swint Levin, an assistant county attorney. "Clearly, everyone understood what was going on."

Collins said the proper way to eliminate the automatic raise provision would have been to pass legislation before the unions signed the contract. The repeal would have applied to future contracts. Instead, the council passed retroactive legislation, an action that often lands cost-cutting reform policies in court. The county's police union has filed suit against Gary's pension bill on similar grounds.

"They could have changed the law anytime they wanted to, but they just couldn't have made it take effect until the new contract," Collins said. "That's what the County Council is for."

In all, about 200 county union members had their hours increased, which could add $800,000 to Anne Arundel's payroll if the Personnel Board rules in their favor. That amount is equal to roughly a half-cent on the county's property tax rate.

But only 95 employees have filed grievances so far. Most of the cases involve members of Local 2563. Fewer than 30 involve members of the blue-collar union.

The board is the final step in the county's employee grievance process. If the board rejects the claims, county employees would have to file suit in Anne Arundel Circuit Court. "If the law is applied the way the Court of Appeals says it should be, then we have an excellent chance," Collins said.

"It was a matter of timing pure and simple," said county Personnel Officer E. Hilton Wade. "I'm amazed that employees are grieving this."

Pub Date: 12/17/96

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