State employees get a day to relax -- like it or not

December 27, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

If you needed to renew your driver's license yesterday, pick up an E-Z Pass at a state drop-in center, appeal your property tax assessment or file incorporation papers for a new business, you were out of luck: Maryland's government was closed.

Friday was one of two days Gov. Martin O'Malley ordered most state agencies closed as part of a furlough plan designed to save the state $34 million amid plummeting tax revenues.

The government will close again next Friday, the day after New Year's, and many workers will be required to take two to three more unpaid days off between now and the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

The largest state employees union has been sharply critical of the move, posting satirical "Maryland State Santa" videos on YouTube that decry the furloughs as unfair and harmful to residents who rely on state services. But many state workers say they don't mind the unpaid day off so much - it beats layoffs, they say.

"I think the way they're doing it is pretty reasonable," said Ken Polcak, a 31-year veteran engineer with the State Highway Administration. "It is certainly preferable to having people laid off or losing positions. ... They'll probably wind up doing that, too."

O'Malley, a Democrat who faces a projected $1.9 billion revenue gap in next year's budget, has not ruled out layoffs but said he would try to avoid them. Maryland's unemployment rate increased last month to 5.3 percent, the highest since January 1996, though it is still considerably lower than the national jobless rate of 6.7 percent.

Technically, the two days of shuttered government are not furloughs but mandatory "salary reductions" affecting about 67,000 workers. The pay reductions will be spread out over the remainder of the fiscal year. State employees making more than $40,000 will be asked to take two or three additional days off by June 30.

Workers in essential health and public safety positions are not affected by the furlough plan, and public university employees are participating in a separate furlough plan that will require them to take as many as five unpaid days off, depending on their salaries.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - the largest of the state's employees unions - has criticized the O'Malley administration's furlough plan and said public services would suffer. In a video posted by the union on its Web site and YouTube this month, an ominously jolly "Maryland State Santa" reads a poem to assembled workers: " 'Twas two weeks before Christmas and all through the state, workers were working both early and late," Santa declaims. "What did they get for their long hours and strife? A gift from the state in the dead of the night.

"Not just furloughs, but wage freezes, too. But that isn't all the bosses want to do," Santa continues, as the workers cringe in fear. "They've got a plan to jack up health care prices and make you bear the burden for their budget crisis!"

In a follow-up video posted Dec. 22, state workers are filmed reading letters to "Maryland State Santa" in which they plead for financial mercy or vow to resist the fat man's belt-tightening.

Despite these fighting words, the consensus among more than a dozen state workers who spoke to The Baltimore Sun was relief at the absence of layoffs and general sanguineness about a few forced days off.

Polcak spent yesterday at his home in Relay, "just recovering from the craziness" of Christmas, he said.

Mary Jane Coolen, a legislative aide in Annapolis, planned to run some errands. "The day off allowed me to spend some quiet time with my husband," she wrote in an e-mail. "We'll clean up my living room from the holiday festivities ... and possibly get to the mall for after-holiday sales."

Some workers took advantage yesterday of a 2-for-1 ticket deal for state employees for special exhibits at the Walters Art Museum, said box office manager Ryan Brown. The "Step Up! in Support of State Employees" initiative continues at the Walters through May 24. Center Stage in Mount Vernon and Round House Theatre in Bethesda are among the other arts organizations participating in the "Step Up!" initiative organized by Maryland Citizens for the Arts, a Baltimore-based advocacy group.

Jack Hughes, a Department of the Environment employee from South Baltimore, said he has been getting teased by his family for his mandatory vacation, but he planned to enjoy the day off with his wife and friends at Cross Street Market in Federal Hill. "In this economic and business climate, [furloughs] are better than layoffs," said Hughes, a state worker since 1987.

Though the city markets were bustling yesterday, the Linden Deli across the street from Baltimore's State Center complex was nearly empty at lunchtime. Debbie Kim, co-owner of the diner, said about 60 percent of her breakfast and lunch customers are state employees who work in the office park. Kim said she's been hearing complaints from patrons in recent days about the unpaid vacation but that the general sentiment has been "it's better than getting laid off."

The vast State Center office park was quiet yesterday, except for a few irritated would-be customers of the State Employees Credit Union of Maryland, who found the bank's West Preston Street branch closed. "It's very inconvenient," said Latonya Branch, a nursing assistant at Maryland General Hospital, before rushing off. "Now I have to go all the way to the University of Maryland [branch] on a 30-minute lunch hour."

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