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State hospital workers who expected to be fired will keep jobs

Almost 70 state dietary services workers who were scheduled to be fired will keep their jobs.

Almost 70 state dietary services workers who were scheduled to be fired and replaced by private contractors will instead keep their jobs, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene confirmed Tuesday.

The employees, most of whom work at the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville, were to be terminated under the budget submitted by Gov. Larry Hogan to the General Assembly in January. The workers were informed Monday that the plan to contract out their work had been canceled.

Legislative leaders had questioned the administration's plan, given the state's projected $400 million surplus this year.

"The administration took another look at it and decided to go in another direction," department spokesman Christopher Garrett said.

Also spared were workers at the John L. Gildner Regional Institute for Children and Adolescents in Rockville. They prepare and distribute food to residential patients at the mental health facilities.

The administration outlined privatization plans late last year, and the state workers' union launched an aggressive lobbying effort.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Maryland Council 3 held rallies outside the State House and brought the affected workers to Annapolis so they could plead their case to lawmakers.

Those efforts paid off when the legislature's budget committees fenced off $1.7 million, cut from other places in the budget, that the governor could use to keep the workers on the job. Of that money, $1.2 million was allocated to Springfield and $530,000 to Gildner.

Fifty-seven of the employees are at Springfield, according to AFSCME. Eleven are at Gildner.

Lawmakers left it up to Hogan to decide how to spend the money. But to privatize food services at the facilities, the department would likely have had to bring a contract to the Board of Public Works.

The board, composed of the Republican Hogan and Democrats Peter Franchot and Nancy K. Kopp, has resisted efforts to fire state employees.

Garrett said neither the budget language nor concerns about board approval affected the decision. The governor's office deferred inquiries to the department.

Patrick Moran, president of the AFSCME council, said the privatization plan "would have had a devastating impact on the clients and the community."

Moran said the workers whose jobs were on the line make roughly $25,000 to $35,000 a year.

"These are not people who are making a lot of money," he said. "These are folks who are committed to this job."

Moran said the jobs in many cases involve providing food adapted to patients' individual needs. He said the companies that provide such services under contract typically pay minimum wage or slightly more.

"It's a revolving door," he said. "They don't pay very well. They don't have any substantial benefits. ... As a result of that, you have a lot of people coming in and out of their jobs."

Moran added that the patients the workers are dealing with do better when they have continuity.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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