Some question Maryland layoffs given budget surplus

Maryland has a projected budget surplus of more than $400 million, but some state workers might still lose the

The jobs of dozens of low-level state workers at the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville are on the chopping block in Gov. Larry Hogan's $42 billion proposed state budget.

Manisha Patel and Debra Zeitler, who provide food services to patients at the hospital, are wondering why.

Patel, 50, and Zeitler, 52, are among 57 workers who are expected to be laid off at Sykesville as part of a privatization effort at the institution for the mentally ill, according to their union. They said they were recently notified by management at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that their jobs would be abolished with the end of the fiscal year June 30. And they're upset.

"We hurt a lot, because of the patients. We're seeing patients every day," said Patel, who visited the State House with Zeitler on Monday night to talk with lawmakers about the impending loss of their jobs.

Senate President Thomas V. Miller questioned Tuesday whether the job cuts are necessary when the state is projecting a surplus of more than $400 million this year.

"I'm shocked, quite frankly," he said.

Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, said he had been approached by a number of state employees with 20 or more years of experience who were facing termination.

Many in state government say they don't know the extent of the Republican administration's plans to downsize the state workforce and privatize some jobs.

Warren Deschenaux, the General Assembly's chief fiscal analyst, said Tuesday that his agency had yet to receive a full accounting of the 553 state positions slated for abolition under Hogan's budget proposal. He said his understanding is that about 100 positions would be contracted to private firms.

Deschenaux said the state could save money by doing so because contractors typically don't pay as well as the state, or provide fringe benefits. It was not clear how many of the abolished positions are vacant and how many would involve layoffs. Hogan administration officials declined to provide specific layoff figures Tuesday.

Christopher Garrett, a health department spokesman, said he could not discuss specifics because they are the subject of union negotiations. But he said the department hopes to save $1 million through privatization.

Patel, of Towson, and Zeitler, from Westminster, are not among the top echelons of state employees. After 10 years working for Maryland, Patel said, she makes about $26,000 a year. Zeitler, a 13-year veteran, said she makes about $21,000.

Neither woman knows what will she will do if put out of work. Both are worried about their job prospects after 50, and what will become of the vulnerable patients they have come to know.

"I don't think they're going to have the care we give them," Zeitler said. "If someone else comes in there, it's just going to be a revolving door."

Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME District 3, said Patel and Zeitler have at least put in the required 10 years to be vested in the state pension system. Moran, who accompanied the women as they made the rounds of the State House, said employees with fewer than 10 years would lose their pension coverage except for a reimbursement of the money they had contributed.

Matthew A. Clark, a Hogan spokesman, said the administration is working to see that all employees who lose their health department jobs find new ones elsewhere in state government or in the private sector.

He defended Hogan's privatization plans.

"Governor Hogan is focused on making sure every state agency runs as efficiently as possible while delivering the best service to taxpayers," he said. "What is lost on many people who have been in Annapolis for too long is this: One of the reasons we have such a large surplus is because of the governor's extraordinary focus on running the state more efficiently."

Also on Tuesday, Miller said the state public defender would lose 15 staff positions that handle the intake of applicants for free legal representation.

"He doesn't know how his office is supposed to function," Miller said, vowing to hold hearings on the cut.

Paul DeWolfe, who heads the Office of the Public Defender, said the 15 positions would come out of the 120 administrative workers who make determinations whether a defendant is indigent. He said he hopes to shuffle staff in a way that avoids firing anyone but said that layoffs are possible.

Clark said all 15 positions are vacant except for four. He said the office has been asked to find others jobs for those workers.

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