Md. Workers Squeezed By Cuts

Layoffs And Furloughs Mean State's Shortfall Leaves Them With A Shortfall Of Their Own

August 31, 2009|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

When a retired Dennis Gist got tired of "walking from room to room" in his Upper Marlboro home, he took a state social services job working with troubled youth. He didn't want to put on a suit and tie every day again; he just wanted to do some good in the world.

Now his wife, also retired from another job, works across the hall, making financial arrangements for long-term care of poor elderly residents.

The Gists are at the forefront of a recession - the ranks of the needy have swelled at social services departments as more residents seek food stamps, cash assistance or other help - and now the economic downturn has come to their household. They are among about 70,000 state employees who must take three to 10 unpaid days to help balance the state budget.

As a two-state worker household, they will lose more than a week's pay, or several hundred dollars. The Gists say they are grateful to have jobs, and they express more concern for co-workers who are worse off financially. But with the recession having shrunk their nest eggs as the cost of everything continues to rise, they admit they'll feel the pinch.

"We'll have to watch our budget because we get a double state income," said Ingrid Gist, 59. "Where both the husband and wife work for the state, it can really hurt."

More than $450 million in cuts made by Gov. Martin O'Malley last week will erode road repair budgets, health care and other services. But perhaps the greatest human toll will be on the state work force.

About 200 state employees were laid off, and the rest will get a pay cut through the $75 million furlough plan designed to have a lesser impact on those in the lowest-income brackets. Officials don't keep statistics on how many households depend on two paychecks from the state.

The move is sure to have an impact on morale as state workers were furloughed last year to save $34 million, and did not receive a cost-of-living pay increase this year. It's the result of a cruel twist of the economic reality: As the recession increases demand for public assistance (and adds to the workload in some state agencies), it also takes a bite out of tax collections.

"All of us in our own way, from the social workers down to the guy who cleans the floor, provide vital functions for our clients that are really needed," said Dennis Gist, 69. "And so that's why I'm really a little bit upset and a little disturbed with the governor. I know that there are other avenues that they could have investigated to offset this budget problem."

State workers often get caught in the political cross hairs.

Not only are they stereotyped as lazy or incompetent, but because they are paid by taxpayers, their fates become the subject of public debate. When O'Malley sought suggestions from the public for how to cut the budget, respondents repeatedly called for pay cuts or layoffs for state employees.

One respondent wrote: "Lay off the Lieutenant Gov. Don't know him, probably a nice guy, but what does he do? Lay off 1,000 of the employees who make over $100K. Lay off 20 percent of all state employees."

Even after O'Malley's cost-cutting, some political observers say the state work force is still too bloated. They note that Maryland lost 50,000 private-sector jobs in the last year, while state government added about 1,000, according to labor statistics.

"You could probably cut the state work force by 15 percent and no one would even notice," said Christopher Summers, president of the conservative-leaning Maryland Public Policy Institute.

O'Malley contends Maryland's work force is leaner than other states' - it ranks 28th out of 50 with 161 state employees per 10,000 residents - and that his administration has been working to make agencies more efficient. He also said he has endeavored to limit the number of layoffs, not wanting to add to the unemployment rolls.

Meanwhile, state workers will "mumble and grumble," said Gist, a union representative who participated in negotiations with the O'Malley administration. "But there's not much they can do about it."

He clearly loves his job, transporting kids who became wards of the state to their proms, stowing McDonald's coupons in the glove compartment of his state vehicle to ensure his charges have been fed, and making home visits to foster homes.

"You have to have a certain kind of psychological equipment to even do this job because you're not in it for the money," he said. "I've always been keen on trying to help people, and I try to assist these kids so that one day they can be functional members of society, so that they can be taxpayers and make their contribution."

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