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Maryland hospital workers rally outside psychiatric facility for COVID pay

Chants of “respect the worker’s voice” and “ho-ho, hey-hey, we deserve response pay!” echoed Wednesday afternoon around the campus of Spring Grove Hospital Center, a state psychiatric facility in Catonsville.

Spring Grove hospital workers, including dietary and maintenance staff, gathered outside the central kitchen to rally for COVID-19 response pay — extra salary given to Maryland’s front-line state employees.

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“You make us sign a paper stating that we are essential employees, but you don’t treat us like essential employees,” said Tiesha Corbin, a dietary worker who has been with Spring Grove for 13 years.

The protest was organized by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 3, the union representing the largest number of state employees.

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At the start of the pandemic, the state granted some workers double-pay. That later changed to an additional $3.13 per hour for those working in emergency essential or mission-critical operations, such as hospital employees, police and juvenile center staff — in positions that could not effectively practice social distancing. Those working in coronavirus quarantine areas received an additional $2 per hour.

The state ended the extra pay in September 2020 for everyone except the employees working in quarantine areas. Maryland then instituted response pay in April 2021 for all those previously eligible under the state Department of Budget and Management’s list.

Despite being included on the state list, Spring Grove’s dietary and maintenance workers are excluded from the response pay, according to an AFSCME Council 3 news release. Corbin said she received extra pay once in March 2020 when the state paid employees double, but never again.

“You’re not going to care about your workers, the people who are making you look amazing?” Corbin said. “We make y’all look good. Value us. That’s all I’m asking.”

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When asked for comment, Spring Grove administrators referred The Baltimore Sun to the Maryland Department of Health.

Charles Gischlar, a health department spokesman, said essential employees who have no opportunity for social distancing and are required to have “close, prolonged contact” with individuals in state custody may be eligible for response pay. Gischlar did not specify whether that would include dining and maintenance staff at state hospitals.

Corbin said her work experience at Spring Grove for the past 15 months has been horrible. The kitchen went from being fully-staffed to bare-bones, she said. People had to leave because of trouble getting to work, or trouble finding child care.

Staff, including Corbin, caught COVID-19 at work, which further worsened the staffing crisis. Corbin said she and other colleagues worked overtime, sometimes stepping out of their job descriptions to ensure patients received normal meals and quality care.

“For them to say that we don’t meet the criteria, and not getting paid for our work, not for risking our family’s lives and our lives as well … it’s just a slap in the face to me,” Corbin said.

Spring Grove management told dietary and maintenance workers they didn’t qualify for response pay because they don’t come into contact with patients — which Corbin said isn’t true. Corbin said the staff often take trays directly to patients, and naturally have conversations with them.

In addition to rallying for response pay, Spring Grove workers called attention to strenuous working conditions. Maryland’s public psychiatric facilities are understaffed; a problem made worse by the pandemic. Nearly all of the care beds across the five state-run psychiatric hospitals are occupied, and about 600 of them are not staffed.

AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran said Maryland officials have not adequately staffed the facilities for several years, leading to patients being treated without adequate care.

The state also has not invested in upgrading the facilities, he said, putting patients and workers at risk. And policies have remained unchanged over the years, even as the patient population referred by the judicial and criminal systems grew and patient needs changed.

Moran said a shortfall of psychiatric bed capacity, heavily geared toward the forensic patient population, sends others with schizophrenia, substance use disorder and other conditions to the private sector, which also doesn’t have enough beds or staff, and doesn’t have the same funding for long-term patient stays.

“Maryland is one of the richest states, but they don’t care about quality services for those in need,” he said. “It’s dire, dire, dire. There’s tons of overtime, which means you don’t have staff to fill the vacancies; little or no effort to go outside the confines of compensating people, which leads people to leave.”

Tim Wallace, a maintenance worker at Spring Grove, said management hasn’t given employees a clear answer as to why they’re being denied response pay. Echoing Corbin, he said the assertion that they don’t interact with patients “couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

Meanwhile, state park rangers hiked for 5 miles Wednesday from Arnold to Annapolis to demand enhanced pay for working under stressful conditions in the pandemic.

“The Maryland Park Service provided absolutely vital assistance to the state of Maryland,” said Chris Czarra, a ranger at Patapsco Valley State Park near Baltimore.

The park rangers said they briefly received a pay bump at the start of the pandemic, but it was discontinued. Their union, Maryland Professional Employees Council, filed a grievance against the state over the pay issue that’s pending.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said park rangers do not qualify for the enhanced pay, which is for workers who can’t social distance and who have prolonged contact with clients in state custody.

“We are proud of our park rangers, and the record levels of visitation we’ve had at our state parks,” Ricci said in a statement.

Baltimore Sun reporters Hallie Miller and Pamela Wood contributed to this article.

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