Owens considers increasing pay for nonunion workers

Slowing economy, union pacts may jeopardize approval

April 22, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

After giving hefty pay raises to members of some unions - namely firefighters and police officers - Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens wants to open the door to large raises for the nearly 1,000 county workers who don't belong to unions.

In an attempt to help iron out disparities created by recent union deals and also to make the county more competitive with others in the area, Owens is proposing a sharp increase in the pay of nonunion workers.

If the County Council agrees, the maximum pay for nonunion workers, many of them professionals and supervisors, would rise by 17.5 percent on average in the next year. Average minimum pay would rise by 12.5 percent. That doesn't mean all salaries would increase that much. Only workers making less than the new minimums would get automatic raises. Those in the middle of their pay grades would be unaffected at first.

The proposed scale would significantly raise the pay ceiling, an important change for managers who have reached the maximum in their pay grades, meaning they do not qualify for standard year-end merit raises. In some cases, county officials say, managers earn less than unionized subordinates when overtime is counted.

Still, with Owens facing a grim budget picture because of the weakening economy and the expense of new union contracts, wholesale double-digit raises for nonrepresented workers seem out of the question for the near future.

"The changes in the pay scale do not mean one cent more for anybody" except those below the new minimum scale, Owens said Friday. She added, however, that "just seeing the change in the scale at least gives some hope to employees."

Owens would not say what across-the-board pay increase she intends to give nonunion workers when she unveils her budget plan May 1. She suggested that it would not vary much from plans of past years. Last year, the 871 nonunion workers got 2 percent raises. Many also got year-end merit raises, averaging 4.7 percent.

The proposed pay scale was introduced to the County Council last week as about 60 professional and technical employees were pondering whether to join the Teamsters union. The employees, who include accountants and computer programmers, will vote Thursday by secret ballot.

Union representatives said they doubted that a new pay schedule and the prospect of higher pay down the road would sway employees.

"It doesn't matter if your maximum salary is $100,000," said Bill Mowery, business agent for Teamsters Local 103, which represents sheriff's deputies and program specialists at the jails. "If it takes you 47 years to get there, it doesn't do you any good."

The county has taken no position on the union vote, personnel chief Mark Atkisson said.

To Owens, the pay scale - the result of months of analysis - would show that she values all employees. Nonunion workers, she said, "are just as important in the delivery of services as our other employees."

"It's the totality that's important. Planners and engineers are critical to this county, too," she said.

With some union workers' pay "bumping up" against that of supervisors, Atkisson said, "you have people who don't want to be promoted" because they could wind up making less and having greater responsibility. Also, he said, Anne Arundel does not pay as well as some counties.

Here's how the proposal would work for someone in grade 20, one of 23 grades (soon to be 24) for the bulk of nonunion workers. Grade 20 could include a senior personnel analyst or automotive fleet administrator. The top scale is $69,803. That would rise to $76,783 as of July and to $82,542 in April next year.

Officials say salary envy has crept into the nonunion ranks since Owens' staff negotiated nine new union contracts in the past year.

Some of those pacts, such as the ones for blue-collar and clerical workers, were modest. Unionized rank-and-file public safety employees fared better. Police officers are receiving 15 percent more this year because of a 7 percent wage increase and other perks. Firefighters won a deal that will increase their wages by 19 percent over three years.

Nonunion workers have gotten raises of 3 percent and 2 percent in the past two years. The scale has been adjusted upward accordingly, but Atkisson said a bigger change is needed because the scale is so "out of kilter."

A second way for nonunion workers to increase their earnings is year-end pay-for-performance awards based on employee evaluations. Those who are below top scale can get a percentage increase built into their salaries. But those who have reached the maximum can qualify only for a one-time lump-sum bonus, and only if their supervisors rate them the equivalent of an A-plus.

Mowery dismissed year-end awards as "completely subjective." The county considers them rewards for good work and, consequently, strong motivators.

Union workers have various ways to increase their pay besides negotiated annual percentage raises. They can qualify for step increases, and some contracts award extra pay for reaching longevity milestones, such as 20 years.

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