Few criticize state's raise for workers

Glendening agreed to 8 percent increase in salary over 2 years

Bipartisan support

Union says wages would still lag behind private sector

January 09, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's agreement last week to grant an 8 percent pay raise over two years to union-represented state employees has met with little criticism because of a bipartisan consensus that Maryland government workers are underpaid.

Some legislative leaders have raised questions about the long-term affordability of the raise, but so far none has suggested trimming it back. With a budget surplus approaching $1 billion, they believe the state is clearly in a position to make up for some of the lean years when its workers got nothing.

Support for the result of the state's negotiations with the unions even extends to critics of the collective bargaining that produced the raise.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, one of the leading conservative voices in the Maryland General Assembly and a tight-fisted guardian of the public purse, can usually be counted on for a scathing quote about the Democratic governor.

But ask the Howard County Republican whether the state can afford the governor's decision to grant the two-year, 8 percent raise to state workers and his answer is succinct: "Yeah, sure."

Flanagan, the House minority whip, has not suddenly turned into a spendthrift liberal. But he is concerned that state employees' salaries have not kept pace with the private sector.

"You want to keep your employees feeling positive about their jobs," he said.

The agreements the administration reached with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Maryland Professional Employees Council and the Teamsters call for 4 percent raises to take effect this Nov. 15 and Jan. 1, 2002. Those raises are expected to set the pattern for other state employees who are not represented by unions.

Four percent annual raises are more generous than the nationwide 3.4 percent average raise won for state government workers in collective bargaining in 1999, according to the Bureau of National Affairs.

But the raises lag behind the 5.5 percent average wage increase in the private sector for 1998, the most recent year for which the Labor Department has statistics.

Union leaders said they are pleased with the raises but that the increases hardly close the gap between them and their peers in the private sector and in the federal and larger county governments in Maryland.

A 1998 state government survey showed that Maryland pays about 81 cents on the dollar compared with similar jobs at a sampling of private employers, neighboring states and metropolitan counties within the state.

Donna Edwards, president of AFSCME Council 92, said the raises could bring state government salaries up to about 82 or 83 cents on the dollar.

Bill Walling, a database specialist at the Department of Housing and Community Development, helped negotiate one of the contracts as president of the Maryland Professional Employees Council, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. He said the result is "the best raise that state employees have got in a long time."

But that doesn't mean state workers will now be well-paid, he said.

Walling, a 25-year veteran at the housing department, said this year's raise of about $2,000 will bring his salary to about $54,000. "If I was in private industry or the federal government doing what I'm doing, I'd probably be making between $65,000 and $70,000," he said.

Eroded conditions

When Walling went to work for the state, it was known for its good salaries and benefits, he said, but over time conditions have eroded.

Pensions were "decimated" in 1980, he said, and raises in the 1970s failed to keep up with double-digit inflation.

State workers fell even further behind during the 1990s as recession and a slow recovery brought several years without pay increases.

Now, he said, his department has a hard time retaining skilled workers.

"Every summer there's an exodus here -- especially in data processing," Walling said. "We operate typically at half staff or less for months on end."

Walling said this round of negotiations, the first since the General Assembly passed a bill granting collective bargaining rights to state workers last year, was far different from previous talks conducted under Glendening's 1996 order granting such rights.

"It seems to have made a difference in the attitude of the state," he said. "In this round there was honest-to-God bargaining. We exchanged positions. We compromised, they compromised."

Sue Esty, state legislative director for AFSCME, said her union had a similar experience in the negotiations, which began last summer and dragged on longer than expected.

"Our folks had been reading the newspapers, which say there's a lot of money in the budget," Esty said. "We didn't expect it to be as difficult as it was."

Walling said the state came in with an offer of a 2 percent raise and that the unions started with proposals ranging from 6 percent to 10 percent. The negotiators finally agreed on 4 percent, but not before the unions accepted delays in the dates when the raises will click in.

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