Workers battling layoffs at zoo

NLRB filing contends employer acted without bargaining or notifying

Some also say pay is too low

Plan to save money by lending elephants stirs grumbling as well

November 16, 2003|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

Growling at the troubled Baltimore Zoo these days isn't coming only from the animals.

The zoo's workers, who unionized last winter as part of the United Steelworkers of America, filed complaints last week with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that the zoo laid off workers without notifying or bargaining with the unit.

"The gloves are coming off," Jim Strong, sub-district director of the United Steelworkers, told zoo employees at a recent meeting.

Several of the 95 employees in the bargaining unit also said they were mystified about the zoo's plan to lend its elephants to other zoos to save money - a dramatic move that stirred public and political debate about how to solve the attraction's financial problems.

"I was really upset because it was so unexpected," Kendell Thomas, a monkey keeper, said of the layoffs. She relocated from Florida nine months ago to work at the Baltimore Zoo, but was notified last week that she will be laid off. She may continue to work at the zoo for several months depending on when some of the animals are sent away, she has been informed.

Stephen Shawe, the lawyer who handles labor relations for the zoo, said the institution is not obligated to discuss layoffs with the union before they take effect.

The labor strife surfaced after zoo officials announced almost two weeks ago that they would have to lay off 20 workers, remove about 400 reptiles and lend out elephants Dolly and Anna. Worker complaints range from pay issues, to the fate of the elephants, to dissatisfaction that some zoo managers got raises shortly before the layoffs.

"We have executive staff who make over $100,000 a year and we're a nonprofit organization," said Colleen Baird, an elephant keeper. "It just seems like instead of capping their own salaries, they get rid of two sister-like animals because they can't afford to feed them."

Baird, a four-year zoo employee, is to be moved to another department when the elephants are sent away. More than three years ago, the zoo hired a consultant to create a more humane program for the giant mammals. The elephants have since flourished, showing hair and tusk growth and improved skin condition. But Baird contends that moving the elephants, ages 27 and 28, may endanger their ability to breed, which they must do by age 30.

Zoo President Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb said the zoo does not plan to separate the elephants while on loan.

"We have to remember, we really can't save the elephants if we don't save the zoo," she said.

A former lawyer with Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe LLP for 25 years and a member of the zoo's board of trustees, Grieb replaced Roger Birkel as the zoo's top administrator in 2002. Birkel resigned last February.

Several factors in the past several years have contributed to the zoo's financial and labor pressures, she said. The September 2001 terrorist attacks, the October 2002 sniper attacks, a harsh winter and wet summer all have slowed the stream of visitors. The state cut its contribution to the zoo by $620,000 in 2001 and by an additional $80,000 last year. The cumulative effect has been a $200,000 deficit for the 161-acre attraction in Druid Hill Park.

Union workers, however, take issue with some management decisions. They contend that some managers shouldn't have been given raises weeks before the layoffs and are suspicious that 18 of 20 workers laid off belong to the bargaining unit. The zoo overall employs about 150 people full-time to tend its stock of 2,000 animals.

Some workers also contend that salaries are low in Baltimore compared with those at other city zoos.

Baltimore zookeepers average $20,000 to $29,000 a year, said Ben Gross, a zoo spokesman. Nationwide, the average zookeeper's salary is between $25,412 and $27,847, according to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

"I don't think they realize that a lot of us have college degrees; a lot of us have moved here; some of us have brought families here to work at the zoo," said Erik Heinonen, a union member and primate keeper at the zoo who did not get laid off.

"A lot of our staff is underpaid, and the keepers are among those who are underpaid," acknowledged Grieb, the zoo president. "Obviously, it's a priority, but I think we just have to wait and see what happens."

Grieb confirmed that some employees had received raises recently, but only in situations where they were asked to assume greater responsibility because the zoo had combined or eliminated other positions.

The troubles at the Baltimore Zoo, the nation's third-oldest, aren't unusual in an industry hurt by government deficits, bad weather and downturns in the economy and tourism.

"It has been a struggle for many this entire year," said Jane Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in Silver Spring.

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