Job cuts by city especially hurt its black workers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fresh from a year's tour in Vietnam 18 years ago, Dorsey M. Adams came home to Baltimore and went to work for the most reliable employer around: the city of Baltimore.

Mr. Adams started with the city as a community organizer. When the city abolished that job in 1976, the city retrained him as a housing inspector. Mr. Adams steadily rose through the inspection ranks and was promoted to a housing inspection supervisor in 1989.

But just as Mr. Adams was moving toward the high rungs of what he thought was a steady career ladder, it was pulled out from under him. In December, he was laid off along with 18 other housing inspectors.

Fiscal problems have forced Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to eliminate jobs since 1990, according to figures supplied by the city's Civil Service Commission.

The city now has 26,680 employees, and Mr. Schmoke has warned that more reductions are likely. As a result, working for city government no longer offers the security that made it attractive in past years.

This is especially bad news for blacks, who historically have found more job opportunities in government than in the private sector.

Ironically, the downsizing has occurred under Mr. Schmoke, the city's first elected black mayor. As blacks gained political power over the years, barriers were broken that had prevented them from holding choice jobs in some city departments. For instance, the Department of Transportation hired very few black supervisors until Mr. Schmoke named a black commissioner.

To date, most of the reductions in government have come through attrition. There have been long-standing hiring freezes in most agencies, allowing many jobs to be phased out as workers retire.

Since city cutbacks began, 513 employees have been laid off, and 292 -- about 57 percent -- have been black, according to figures compiled by the city.

"For an African American, to be in professional life a generation ago in this city meant he had to go into the Baltimore City public schools," said City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. "There were no other career ladders anywhere.

"Finally, in the Fire and the Police Departments and some other places, there were breakthroughs," she continued. "Now, just as that familiar process which has helped so many ethnic groups in the past is kicking in, the world closes down."

That certainly was the case for Mr. Adams. Reared with seven brothers and sisters in the Upton section of West Baltimore, he lived on the edge of poverty until becoming an adult.

But that began to change when the city hired him. His first city job paid just $6,600 a year, but it offered benefits and a future. And by the time Mr. Adams was laid off last month, his annual salary was $33,000.

It had been enough to finance a semidetached home in Northwest Baltimore, two cars and family vacations in Nags Head, N.C., and Virginia Beach and Williamsburg, Va.

"That was pretty good money," said Mr. Adams, who is married and has two children. "Now I'm looking for a job and trying to make arrangements with my creditors to reduce my payments.

"I didn't expect that one day I'd be laid off and on the street."

The real price paid by blacks is not measured by layoffs but in lost opportunities for jobs, according to the mayor.

In past years, Baltimore hired legions of people in jobs that paid modestly but started careers and provided benefits. Now, because of the recession, those job opportunities are not materializing.

"I think that this is a problem throughout the entire country," Mr. Schmoke said. "Governments are downsizing. But to this point, I don't think what we're going through has had a disproportionate impact on the black community."

In Baltimore, blacks hold a majority of the 10,000 jobs in the schools and about 57 percent of the 16,000 non-school jobs, according to city Equal Employment Opportunity records.

"Government has always been in the forefront of equal opportunity employment," said Hilda E. Ford, the state's secretary of personnel and formerly personnel director in the city. "Both our female work force and minority work force exceed the relevant available work force in the state."

Minorities fill 35 percent of the jobs in the state's 55,000-person civil service work force, Ms. Ford said. And just as the number of city employees is being reduced, the state work force has shrunk by 5,000 employees since 1990, Ms. Ford said.

"When you have cutbacks in the government, they will disproportionately impact black workers," said Robert B. Hill, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University.

"There are several reasons for that," he continued. "One is that blacks are attracted to government jobs because of the supposedly longer-term security they provide. Another is that there is just less discrimination there vis-a-vis private industry."

Increasing the impact of government job reductions on blacks in Baltimore is the fact that they are largely excluded from professional and managerial jobs in the private sector, according to a study released last fall by the Investing in Baltimore Com

mittee, a group of black business leaders.

The report ranked Baltimore near the bottom among five cities, including Richmond, Va., St. Louis, Atlanta and Philadelphia, in hiring and promoting black managers. Only Richmond was worse, the report said.

The report helped to document why many blacks see government as the most inviting place in the working world. "Historically, many black Ph.D.s and lawyers worked in the post office because of the lack of opportunity elsewhere," Mr. Hill said.

"Many ethnic groups who have been barred from employment in theopen marketplace have built their skills and careers in civil service," Ms. Clarke agreed. "Later, they have been able to educate their children, who have been able to go on to careers in the wider world."

If the city is forced to lay off more workers, blacks, who fill many of the city's lower-ranking jobs, will be most vulnerable, Mr. Hill said.

"There are many more people in lower-level jobs. And when you cut back, you cut back where there are more people," he said. "And blacks tend to be at the lower levels."

Given that reality, Mr. Schmoke said private businesses in Baltimore should do more to promote employment opportunities for blacks and other minorities.

Last spring, in a speech to the Greater Baltimore Committee, Mr. Schmoke urged business leaders to be more inclusive. He said that with Baltimore nearly 60 percent black and increasingly populated by other minorities, "our city cannot be the economic success story all of us want if the majority of our people are left behind."

Mr. Schmoke has not backed away from that position. "I'm hoping that there will be renewed commitment demonstrated by Baltimore's private sector," he said.

But that does little good for Mr. Adams, the laid-off housing inspector who now spends his days poring over the want ads and going through the rigors of looking for a job.

"It is very difficult when you've done one thing basically for 18 years," Mr. Adams said. "It is a lot like you're starting all over again."

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