Many work for state without benefits 'Contractual workers' in Md. lack sick leave, other protections

July 14, 1998|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

When Kim Butler got sick and had to miss a week of work, her co-workers at the Department of Social Services office on Broadway in Baltimore took up a collection to help pay her bills.

Although Butler works full time as an administrator, she is one of a growing number of state employees who do not get benefits many others take for granted, such as medical insurance, sick leave, vacation time and basic job protections.

The employees are called "contractual workers" because they sign annual contracts to work for the state. They get paid only for the days they work. An illness means lost wages for the time missed and a pile of medical bills they are responsible for paying.

"It's like a whole subclass of workers that seems to be overwhelmingly women and African-Americans," said Kim Keller, an area director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 92, a union representing state employees.

It is a subclass that grew dramatically as Maryland cut about 3,900 full-time, permanent positions to save money since 1991. In many cases, state agencies hired cheaper contractual workers to fill the gap.

The state acknowledges that the practice not only creates a hardship for workers, but ultimately is bad business for taxpayers -- since turnover in such jobs leads to increased training costs and lower productivity.

More than 30,000 full- or part-time contractual employees worked for state agencies during 1996, the last year for which firm figures are available. Some stayed just a few weeks, others the entire year -- working as clerks, counselors, typists, nurses, biologists and in other positions throughout Maryland government.

Their collective hours represented the equivalent of 6,972 full-time positions -- a figure that had doubled over 10 years, according to a state Department of Budget and Management report issued in December. By comparison, the state had roughly 70,000 full-time permanent employees.

The budget department report was prompted by a task force Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed to look at reforms to the state's personnel management system. The task force found that long-term contractual employment was "neither in the best interest of the state or the employee."

The budget department report agreed, saying that while a contractual worker gets compensated at about 80 percent of the cost for a permanent position, the saving "rapidly erodes when training costs, turnover and morale are considered."

Entry-level state workers hired under contract leave those jobs as soon as they find better positions with benefits and more security -- increasing state training costs and reducing productivity.

"In addition, there are fairness issues that must be confronted for those situations where contractual employees perform essentially the same functions as permanent employees yet are compensated differently," the report said.

Maryland Budget Secretary Frederick W. Puddester agreed that it is not a good situation for state workers to have to take up collections to help full-time co-workers like Butler, who simply had the misfortune of missing work because she was sick.

"It certainly reflects badly on the state as an employer," Puddester said.

He said contractual positions make sense in certain circumstances -- such as seasonal or part-time work -- but are not intended for full-time work that has to be done on a continuing basis.

When Maryland turned to cheaper, contractual labor in the early 1990s as a way to deal with its budget problems, it was following a trend in the national economy.

"Over the past 20 years, there's been a dramatic expansion of the proportion of the work force in what you might call irregular employment -- everything from temporary workers to people employed on fixed-term contracts and part-time workers," said Sanford M. Jacoby, a professor of management and policy studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Jacoby said recent figures suggest that about a third of the U.S. work force is in irregular jobs, often receiving fewer benefits and less security than regular workers.

Trying to reverse trend

In Maryland, Puddester said, state officials are beginning to take steps to reverse that trend.

He noted, for instance, that the General Assembly agreed to create 250 new permanent positions in the fiscal 1997 state budget if 1.5 contractual jobs were abolished for each permanent job filled.

About 600 contractual workers have moved into permanent state jobs since 1997, officials said, although they could not say how many new contractual workers were hired during the period.

"I would look for a major effort to convert contractual positions to permanent positions in the fiscal year 2000 budget, which will be drafted this fall and voted on in the next legislative session," Puddester said.

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