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Mayor defends 'liberal leave' decision for city workers

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake defended her decision to require nonessential Baltimore employees to travel to work Thursday or stay home and use vacation time, saying residents need services in severe weather.

Union representatives said the decision to allow "liberal leave" — but not to shut down city offices — was inconsistent with Gov. Martin O'Malley's call for Marylanders to stay home during the storm. They said they hoped the mayor would remember the workers' commitment when it came time to finalize their contracts.

"It's confusing," said Yvonne C. Rice, president of the City Union of Baltimore, citing a contradiction in the governor's order and the mayor's. "If you don't want anybody on the street, and that's something coming down from the top, why make [city workers] use their own time" to stay at home, she said.

Rawlings-Blake spokesman Kevin R. Harris said invoking the city's liberal leave policy for nonessential employees was the right balance between providing services and keeping employees safe. Essential employees include fire and police, wastewater staff and certain transportation workers, including traffic signal operators and snowplow drivers. Most such employees were required to go to work Thursday.

By Thursday afternoon, Harris said, more than 60 percent of residential roadways were cleared and treated and more than 90 percent of primary and secondary roads were passable. Public transportation in the city was running with minor delays, he said.

"It's been a long winter for everyone, including city employees, and we understand their frustration," Harris said. "However, our top priority must be serving the public. Given the conditions in Baltimore City, it was not necessary to close the government, especially when citizens are still in need of services."

Harris said every employee's situation is different, and the administration called on supervisors to be flexible "so that no one is put in a position where their safety is at risk trying to get to work."

Rice, whose union represents the city's white-collar workers, said requiring nonessential employees to use leave on snowy days might not be fair to all workers, some of whom may be on probation and not yet have earned vacation time.

Still, Rice said employees and city officials can settle issues that pop up during continuing discussions.

"We're going to keep working on it until we get it right," she said.

Glenard S. Middleton Sr., who represents the city's blue collar workers with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he hopes the administration will remember the dedication of city workers, especially essential staff, during contract negotiations and reward them with salary increases and other benefits.

"It's always been a heavy lift for us, especially in difficult times like it was [Thursday] morning," Middleton said.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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