A lawsuit brought by four Baltimore County employees is starting to gain national attention among workers' advocates and labor lawyers, who call it a prime example of workers fighting what they say is local governments' increasingly manipulative employment practices.
In their lawsuit, county employees Julianne O'Connor, Julianne Uehlinger, Janice Zimmerman and Gail Jett ask the court system to get involved in a longstanding debate over Baltimore County's practice of labeling some county workers "part time," even though they work as many hours as their full-time counterparts.
Worker advocates here and across the country have said municipalities label employees part time as a way for them to withhold benefits and job security from some workers - a group they said is disproportionately female and black - and to let an elite group of employees receive higher salaries than would be allowed in the merit personnel system.
The county, which says the part-time system is legal and necessary, has asked the Baltimore County Circuit Court to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed during the winter. They say the county charter allows for the system, and that some positions must be labeled part-time because they are funded with federal money and therefore not a part of the permanent personnel budget.
While County Executive James T. Smith Jr. has said he will look at the issue, he said he also believes there is a place in the county for part-timers, said spokesman Damian O'Doherty.
But the four county women, all part-time workers who work only one hour a week less than their full-time colleagues, said the practice violates the county charter and that the county needs to overhaul its personnel system.
"They have many, many names for these people," said Judith Bendich, an attorney whose Seattle firm is credited as the first to litigate a "misclassified" employee case. "They're called intermittent, part-time, temporary, on-call, independent contractors. ... But they're really the same as regular employees."
The four employees' situation is not unique, according to workers' advocates. Especially as the economy worsens, they said, a growing number of municipal workers are being labeled as something other than full-time employees. The practice saves money for local governments, they said, and also lets politicians talk about how they are trimming "bloated" government work forces.
But the lawsuit, at least on the East Coast, is atypical, they said.
"I'm interested in that Baltimore County case," said Cathy Ruckelshaus, the litigation director at the New York-based National Employment Law Project, who said her organization was looking into a similar employee situation in New York City. "It's oftentimes difficult to figure out the best legal grounds to go after these."
In New York, she said, some workers have been classified as temporary for years.
"They work full time next to city workers, or are called `part time' and are put in different agencies on different days of the week," she said. "The main thing is that workers want job security and the benefits that attend the city jobs. But the city is interested in cutting costs, and New York City in particular is facing a budget deficit."
In Baltimore County, the bulk of employees are in what is known as the merit system. This system, required by the 1956 county charter, outlines what the county must do in various personnel procedures, such as hiring, firing and promoting.
The charter also allows for part-time employees, as well as temporary and seasonal employees, who are excluded from the merit system.
Critics of the county's policy said that provision has been distorted. Part-time workers, they say, are part-time in name only.
800 part-time workers
More than 800 county employees out of more than 6,600 are designated as part time even though, according to the lawsuit, they typically work only one hour a week less than employees in the merit system. And because they get fewer vacation days than merit system employees, they end up working more hours a year than colleagues who are recognized as full-time employees, according to the lawsuit.
O'Connor, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, has been a part-time employee in the Baltimore County Housing Office, Department of Social Services, since 1988. She is paid for 34 hours a week, rather than the 35 hours per week of a full-time employee.
One other plaintiff, Uehlinger, works 34 hours a week in what the lawsuit said is a supervisory position with the Department of Social Services - a violation of charter rules that say no supervisor can be a part-time employee.
The county responded that Uehlinger is a consultant, and therefore exempt from the merit system.
"The County has classified a large number of positions as `part-time' positions," the lawsuit said. "These positions are situated throughout the range of County agencies. Their only common element is the design of the County to establish positions whose occupants have no merit system protection."