A union official sharply criticized the state Department of Juvenile Services yesterday for demoting 11 workers who collected overtime pay for training sessions they could not attend -- payments that were authorized by a supervisor who also was disciplined.
Ron Bailey, executive director of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 92, said the agency was "scapegoating" workers at the Cheltenham Youth Facility in Prince George's County for its management failures.
Direct-care workers who supervise juvenile offenders are required by state law to take 18 hours of in-service training each year in suicide prevention, the proper use of restraints and similar matters. The training ordinarily takes place in classrooms with an instructor.
Bailey said employees asked for time off to take the required training but were denied it because there wasn't enough staff to release them from work.
Instead, supervisors agreed to let workers perform two duties at once -- supervising youths and reading training manuals -- in exchange for time-and-a-half pay, Bailey said.
The workers were told to study the manuals and test themselves while they worked their regular shift supervising youths, according to a report this week by an independent state monitor.
The monitor's report has triggered a review of training practices at all of the state's juvenile facilities. Juvenile services officials say their preliminary review indicates there have not been similar problems with training at other centers.
Edward Hopkins, a spokesman for the juvenile services agency, said Wednesday the training coordinator at Cheltenham who authorized the overtime pay for training was dismissed. Eleven workers were also ordered to repay $6,500 to $7,000 in improper overtime payments they received, and they were demoted, Hopkins said. Their supervisor also was demoted.
Bailey said that ordering the overtime to be repaid was appropriate, but that the demotions are unfair and should be rescinded. He described the employees as the victims of "short staffing and poor management." Starting pay for direct-care juvenile service workers known as "resident advisers" is under $30,000, records show. Many are hired as contract workers and receive no benefits.
Bailey said low pay and dangerous working conditions in juvenile services have led to high turnover and vacancies, endangering workers and youths in their care. He said staffing shortages are "at a crisis level" in the juvenile services agency and that pay needs to be raised immediately to fill vacant positions.
The independent juvenile justice monitor also has pointed to staffing as a serious issue for the juvenile services agency. Workers often are forced to work back-to-back double shifts to keep centers staffed, monitors say.
"We acknowledge we have staffing issues at our facilities, but I'm not going to say we're at a crisis level," Hopkins said.
The monitor's office reported the improper training arrangement had been going on for 18 months, but juvenile services officials say it was only for a few weeks.