Howard County employees reacted with anger and confusion yesterday as they grappled with the details of a proposed personnel overhaul that would gradually make them earn less and work more for bosses with broad new powers.
"That is a nightmare," said police union president John Paparazzo, who like more than 600 veteran employees would see his salary frozen for years by the proposed plan.
The fine points of the proposed personnel overhaul became clear Monday, when a California consultant presented its final recommendations for re-creating the personnel system in the model of private business. Many details remained unclear, and others could be changed by the County Council or collective bargaining because roughly half of the county's 1,850 employees are unionized. But as most employees understand the changes, they don't like them.
The key changes would be a standard 40-hour workweek, a new system of evaluations giving supervisors the power to reward or punish employees for performance and a salary scale stretching out pay raises.
"By doing what they're trying to do, they're essentially saying we don't want you here for more than 10 years," said Roger Hawkesworth, a maintenance mechanic for the Department of Public Works. "I agree that government needs to be revised. I'm not sure this is the best way."
County Executive Charles I. Ecker, a Republican who has made the personnel changes a top priority of his administration, sympathized with the complaints of his employees. But he stood by the recommendations.
"They have legitimate concerns, and we're just going to have to work through them as much as possible," he said.
Employees will be able to formally respond to the report -- to administrators and the County Council -- in the next several weeks. The council plans to vote in late July after several meetings.
The salary scale would go into effect Sept. 29. The system of evaluations and bonuses would begin in spring and summer of 1999.
Negotiations with the county's unions -- which must approve many of the proposed changes -- are to begin this summer.
'Make best of bad situation'
"We're going to try to make the best of a bad situation," said Dale Chase, president of the county's union of blue-collar workers.
One relatively popular provision is the recommendation to switch many county employees from 35-hour to 40-hour workweeks. About 35 percent of county workers -- including all office workers and all supervisors -- now have 35-hour weeks. Ecker plans to pay them for the additional hours -- equal to a 14 percent raise.
But many employees dislike the new salary scale -- which favors promotions and curbs rewards for longevity -- and the evaluation system, which gives supervisors the power to reward or punish employees financially based on performance.
Veteran employees would be the hardest hit.
When most veteran county employees began work -- in the 1980s -- 5 percent annual raises were routine until they reached top scale -- as much as 45 percent higher than starting salary -- after eight years. Throughout the 1990s, raises have slowed to 2 1/2 percent a year and climbing to top scale has taken 15 years, although there were permanent longevity bonuses of $1,000 after years 12 and 16.
The new system would end longevity bonuses. Top scale would be only 35 percent higher than entry salaries. And it would take 20 years to reach the highest salary for each individual job grade.
The timing of the salary scale would favor new employees because the consultant says newer employees are improving their work faster. Raises of 3 percent would come annually in the first few years of work. But after 12 years, 3 percent raises would come only once every three years -- if supervisors approve them.
Because of the changes, many current employees who are at or near the top of their scales under the current system are off the scales under Ecker's proposed new system. Those employees -- more than 600 of them -- would get no raises until inflation pushed the top end of their salary scales past their current salaries.
Steve Bockmiller, a county planner, said the changes will lower his maximum possible salary, from $48,000 to $44,000. And it would take him 11 years, not five, to reach that. Over time, that change would cost him tens of thousands of dollars.
"Some people have the perception that we [government workers] have it cushy," he said. "We're just working stiffs."
The other key component of the new personnel system would be performance evaluations conducted by supervisors.
Employees who do not meet standards could see their salaries frozen. Those who exceed standards would be eligible for a competitive pool of bonus money set aside for all employees. The amount of bonuses would depend on each employee's salary and performance ratings.