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Baltimore unions told there could be pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs because of coronavirus budget shortfall

Baltimore officials warned union leaders that their members could face pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs as the city braces for budget shortfalls amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 President Sgt. Mike Mancuso wrote a fiery letter to members Thursday night, saying he and other union leaders met with city officials to discuss how to address a looming $103 million revenue shortfall for next year.

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Mancuso’s letter said the city is looking to make $11 million in personnel cuts.

City spokesman Lester Davis acknowledged such cuts will be difficult, and said hard choices must be made as Baltimore faces “an economic downtown that we haven’t seen since the Great Recession."

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“The picture around revenue for the city is very bleak,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure that out.”

Also at Thursday’s meeting were leaders from City Union of Baltimore, the Managerial and Professional Society of Baltimore, the firefighters’ union and the union that represents nurses, including some who are working at the city’s drive-thru coronavirus testing site at Pimlico Race Course.

They were presented with a series of cost-cutting scenarios to consider; none are set in stone.

Leaders were told the city could freeze members’ salaries, meaning they would forego raises unions won in collective bargaining, according to a city memo distributed to union presidents.

The second option outlined in the memo would have city employees take up to six furlough days, with a 1.5% to 2.3% impact on their salaries.

Lastly, the city offered a scenario in which there would be no pay freeze and no furloughs. But it would mean nearly 175 layoffs of full-time employees, the memo states, most of whom are deemed nonessential.

Mancuso said the suggested cuts are asking too much from a police department grappling with continued high rates of violence even during the pandemic. The police union also warned of the risks facing officers and their families as they work in dangerous conditions.

“I am furious and disgusted with the mayor and his administration for asking our members to shoulder the burden of this crisis both physically and now financially," Mancuso wrote in the two-page letter to the department’s 2,500 members.

He said 350 department employees have been quarantined in connection with the outbreak, with 63 awaiting test results and 19 that have tested positive for COVID-19.

Mancuso also noted that the city recently agreed to pay officers an additional $200 per paycheck as hazard pay, which he said city leaders are now trying to “recoup,” a move he called “deceitful and insulting.”

“Now, we are being asked to sacrifice even more while we continue to put on our uniforms and place ourselves on the front lines of this pandemic for the citizens of Baltimore,” he said.

The potential cuts come as the police department has worked to rebuild its ranks under a federal consent decree. In addition to attempting to hire 300 more officers, department leaders are trying to shift more work toward civilian employees to further free up officers for patrol and other functions.

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Richard “Dickie” Altieri II, president of Baltimore Fire Fighters, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 734, said he understands the city is facing economic challenges, but such discussions are premature.

“This was not the time for the city to be discussing these issues, especially when we still have not hit the surge that is expected to hit late next week,” Altieri said in a letter to his union’s members, referring to an expected surge of COVID-19 cases as the disease becomes more widespread in the city.

“We know that the city has to balance their budget with the mayor and City Council by July and that everyone is being hit hard by this global pandemic. But to suggest this sacrifice of our members, who are on the front lines every day, is unacceptable and disheartening.”

Altieri also said the proposals were an insult to firefighters and others on the front lines of the pandemic.

“Now is the time for all city unions to work together to be able to fully advocate for their members," he wrote.

Wendy Smith, president of American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 67 & Local 558, which represents about 90 nurses who work for the city health department and school system, said it doesn’t make sense to lay off nurses during a pandemic.

“They are out there risking their families’ lives, and to do this with less pay?” Smith added. “We are already in a position where we are so short.”

That city employees are at the forefront of the pandemic is not lost on Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, Davis said.

“We owe it those on the front lines to try to figure out a way to accomplish the financial goals that we need for the city in a way that’s going to be least impactful across the board,” Davis said.

The economic uncertainty sparked by the pandemic is expected to have widespread and long-lasting effects on state and local government budgets.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, instituted a freeze Thursday on nonessential hiring. Carroll County’s budget director recently predicted the county could lose $4 million a month in revenues because of a statewide stay-at-home order meant to slow the spread of the disease.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan enacted a state budget freeze Friday. A worst-case scenario developed by the state comptroller’s office estimated Maryland could lose $2.8 billion in revenue by the end of June, should the stay-at-home order remains in place that long.

Baltimore is expected to end this fiscal year with a $42.3 million deficit, as typical economic activity slows to a crawl. The city’s finance department also forecasts that the city will bring in about $100 million less in revenue than anticipated for the fiscal year that begins in July.

As the city searches for cuts, Budget Director Bob Cenname said last week that “everything has to be on the table" because of the size of the shortfall. Last month, the city instituted a freeze on nonessential hiring and spending.

Young said at an April 1 news conference that the city hadn’t contemplated laying off employees, but cautioned it was a possibility.

“I personally don’t want to see layoffs, but if the budget dictates that, we have no other choice unless our president sends us some relief,” said the Democrat, repeating his call for more federal funding to be directed toward cities such as Baltimore.

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