Problems with the state's new payroll system have kept some prison employees from receiving pay they are due, leaving some short of cash as the holidays approach.
The state's largest public employee union and Gov. Larry Hogan's administration are now arguing over how many workers are affected and how severely.
Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Council 3, said Wednesday that failures in the state's Workday computer program have shortchanged employees on base pay and overtime in the Division of Correction over the past four pay periods.
He compared the administration's handling of the information technology challenge to the O'Malley administration's fumbling of the Affordable Care Act rollout in 2013.
"This is like the health care exchange debacle all over again," Moran said. "This is like [former Lt. Gov.] Anthony Brown's debacle, only on Hogan's watch."
Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer called the comparison "ludicrous"
"This is clearly a political game of some sort, which is unfortunate because we're talking about people's paychecks," Mayer said.
Gary W. McLhinney, director of professional standards in the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said Wednesday that the department had heard from 19 employees who had received less than their base pay for this week's pay period. The department employs 10,000 people.
He said he did not know how many employees were shorted on overtime pay — the union's top complaint.
"It's not acceptable even for a single employee not to get their correct pay," McLhinney said. But he insisted that the number shorted on base pay — down from 86 the week before — was "an extremely low error rate."
"When you have human beings involved in the process, mistakes are going to be made," McLhinney said.
He said all problems with back pay and overtime will be resolved in time for the paychecks of Dec. 14.
AFSCME has been one of the Republican governor's most vociferous critics. The union has traditionally aligned with Democrats.
About two dozen correctional officers from AFSCME's Council 67, which represents employees at the state-run Baltimore Central Booking and Intake Center, staged a protest outside the facility Wednesday afternoon.
They said they've been told repeatedly the problem will be resolved by their next pay period, only to find the next paycheck short, or to show sick leave or overtime missing.
Correctional officer Ciara Hall said she's been shorted 82 hours of pay.
She said management gave her letters to give to her creditors and landlord explaining the situation, but she's worried her car could be repossessed or that she could lose her home.
Hall said she worries about long-term damage to her credit. She said she hasn't yet bought Christmas presents for her family.
Sgt. Rene Greene, an officer at the Jessup Correctional Institution, said his Christmas might may have to come late this year because the state has not paid him the overtime he is due for the past six weeks.
Greene, a union shop steward for Council 3, said he's never seen such severe payroll problems in his 13 years with the corrections division.
He said he had to take out a $300 payday loan to make ends meet. He said the loan will cost him $420 to pay back
"The morale of the employees is way low, and especially during this time of year," Greene said.
Glen Middleton, executive director of Council 67, said the pay shortage could cause a safety issue inside the pretrial facility.
"When the inmates know that you're upset, then they try to take advantage of it because they want to get out," he said. "It's a secure place, but it could become unsecure if you don't take care of the employees that provide the security."
Eric Shirk, a spokesman for the Department of Budget and Management, said the contract for the new payroll system was approved under the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley.
Board of Public Works records show that the state awarded Oakland Consulting Group of Lanham a contract worth up to $105 million for 15 years for "human capital management software" in December 2013.
Shirk said its rollout at other state agencies has gone smoothly. He said the problems are confined to the public safety department, and affect less than 1 percent of its employees.
"The system is working as it is intended, it is not a system issue, but rather a human error issue that [the department] is addressing," Shirk said.
He said the budget department is sending in a team to help resolve the issue "as quickly as possible."