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Lawmakers seek probe of VA practices Center in Baltimore is accused of bias in promoting, punishing; Official denies wrongdoing; He labels allegations by union a ploy to increase membership


WASHINGTON -- Several congressional representatives from Maryland have called for an investigation into allegations of racial discrimination at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in downtown Baltimore.

In a letter last week, they asked the VA's deputy inspector general to determine whether the facility was involved in unfair labor practices.

The letter was signed by four Maryland Democrats: Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, Rep. Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

The letter came in response to charges by union officials that blacks are underrepresented in top management positions at the hospital and are disproportionately singled out for discipline.

On Thursday, union officials came to Cummings' office in Washington to ask for his help and to spell out their complaints.

Of the 128 employees who are at the top of the pay scale at the medical center, only four are black, they said.

Union officials added that the hospital's entire work force is 45 percent African-American.

In two years, the union said, it has taken 25 disputes with management to arbitration. All the cases involved black employees. The union said it won 21 of them.

"All we want to do is see peace and justice for the employees VTC there," said William P. Milton Jr., a labor consultant with the American Federation of Government Employees. "Sooner or later, somebody is going to step in and say we cannot do business as usual."

Asked about the allegations Friday, Dennis H. Smith, who oversees the VA health care system for Maryland, denied that there was a pattern of racial discrimination. Instead, he asserted that the union is using the claims to try to attract more members.

By showing its muscle in bashing management, Smith argued, union officials hope to persuade hospital professionals such as doctors, nurses and medical technicians to choose the American Federation as their labor representative.

"I am really strongly committed to promoting and recognizing the value of a diverse work force," Smith said. "They have hidden agendas."

Smith also said the union is painting a misleading picture by choosing its figures selectively. The union, he contended, has not won as many arbitration cases as it claims. He also argued that the Maryland VA system -- which includes two other hospitals, a nursing home and an outpatient clinic -- has a good record when it comes to racial diversity.

He said, for instance, that minorities make up 28 percent of professionals who work in the Maryland VA system, while minority representation in professional jobs in the state as a whole is only about 22 percent.

"I'm not going to say we don't have room for improvement," Smith said. But "we are not doing as badly as Mr. Milton would like you to believe."

Milton, though, described one case in which five black employees were performing their jobs at a high level but were not being paid properly for their work. The grievance was sustained at arbitration, he said.

Milton also said that another black employee with a good work record was quickly fired after revealing that he tested positive for human immunodeficiency virus.

Cummings said he is "concerned in 1996 that we are facing the same issues we were facing 40 or 50 years ago. I have a major, major problem with this."

The medical center, which is on the University of Maryland's campus in downtown Baltimore, is in Cummings' congressional district.

Both sides say the other is lying and have had trouble arranging meetings to discuss the charges.

Smith said he plans to form a task force next month with union representatives to review diversity in the entire Maryland system. He added that anyone who feels discriminated against can lodge a formal complaint with the equal employment opportunity manager at the medical center. But, he said, few complaints have been filed since he arrived last year.

The VA center in Baltimore handles about 260,000 visits from outpatients each year. It employs about 1,200 people -- half of whom belong to the American Federation's Local 1923.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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