City employees fear pay loss for missing work during blizzards

February 12, 2010|By Justin Fenton and Julie Scharper | Baltimore Sun reporters

Union officials say the city is considering docking the pay of police officers, firefighters and public works employees who did not report to work during the week's historic snowstorms, a move labor leaders say would be unprecedented in recent memory.

Although many city employees were on liberal leave this week, "essential personnel," including public safety officers, were required to show up for their shifts or face losing a day of pay. The policy has been on the books for at least six years but has been enforced infrequently.

Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake has praised the work of the city's essential personnel, and while it's still not known how many employees missed work this week, the problem appeared serious enough that numerous employees contacted union leaders saying they had been told by supervisors that they might not be paid.

The president of the City Union of Baltimore, Brenda Clayburn, said the group was planning to file a grievance.

Said fire union president Bob Sledgeski, a 37-year veteran: "I have talked to some old-timers in the department, and this has never been done that we can recall."

Late Friday, police union president Robert F. Cherry said he had spoken with Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III and that they had agreed to review 20 to 40 instances where pay had been docked. Cherry had previously been pushing for officials to double the pay of those who came in.

"I think we may be able to, at least for the Police Department, get this issue resolved for those who legitimately could not get in," Cherry said.

It was not clear whether agencies were given a directive or were individually pursuing such options. A spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, Ryan O'Doherty, referred questions to the city's labor commissioner, Deborah Moore-Carter, who said she would recommend against docking pay.

"During this particularly historic snowstorm, I'm sure the agency heads are going to be a little lenient," she said.

In addition to public safety officers, those who maintain buildings, remove snow, work in water and wastewater treatment, answer calls for 311 and 911, operate the central garage and work with the homeless are considered essential personnel, Moore-Carter said. They receive memos every two years reminding them of their classification and that they must report to work in emergency situations, she said.

Surrounding counties said they had policies in place that included discipline for essential employees who fail to report for work during bad weather, but none said they had encountered that problem during this week's storm.

"This hasn't been an issue for us during this snowstorm," said David Abrams, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold. "But hypothetically, it's handled on an individual basis and the supervisor evaluates whether it's an excused absence or not. ... A lot of times if a person doesn't show up for work, there's a logical reason for it. But we don't dock people's pay."

Howard County Executive Ken Ulman said many snowplow drivers and fire and police employees have spent extended time at work, some not seeing their families for days. "I haven't heard of one instance where someone could not get in," he said.

Many city workers, some who live as far as Pennsylvania and Delaware, also overcame challenging odds to get to work. Sledgeski said firefighters weren't offered rooms in downtown hotels, and faced the prospect of coming in a day or two early to beat the storm.

In an e-mail, Fire Chief James Clack said only a "very small percentage" of firefighters did not report for work, with the department staffing five extra firetrucks and 10 extra medic units every shift for over one week. "The members of the BCFD have done an outstanding job under very difficult conditions," he said.

There were reports of police officers hitchhiking, sleeping on desks and floors of district stations, and some districts had as much as double their typical sworn force. Cherry said one officer's vehicle landed in a snowbank on his way in, while others were turned away on their way into the city. Cherry said one officer's vehicle landed in a snowbank, while others who were en route were told by Pennsylvania or Baltimore County police officers that they should get off the road.

"We have an obligation to make sure we do our job for the people of Baltimore," said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. "There are extenuating circumstances. ... But I'm sure there's others who didn't make the effort, and we have to look at that."

Cherry was critical of what he said was a failure by the city to plan and make accommodations for essential workers. "What this comes down to is the city of Baltimore wants to save money, and the best way is to [dock pay from] these guys," he said.

Sledgeski did not believe the move was fueled by money. But he said it was misguided nonetheless.

"We've never not had enough people, and the people who get stuck there don't expect to get relieved," he said. "So we have a couple people who called and said, 'I really don't think I can get to work.' It's not that big of a deal.

Baltimore Sun reporters Nicole Fuller, Mary Gail Hare and Larry Carson contributed to this article.

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