More hours, raises urged for workers All county employees would go to 40-hour week; Overhaul recommended; 14% boost seen for 600 in system; new salary scale proposed


A sweeping overhaul of Howard County's personnel system now in the works would mean a longer work week and thousands of dollars in annual raises for more than 600 county employees, including nearly every department head, manager and supervisor.

Switching all Howard employees to 40-hour work weeks is among several key recommendations emerging from a comprehensive personnel study of revamping how all 1,800 county employees are classified, evaluated and paid.

The study is coming with a big tab. County Executive Charles I. Ecker plans to set aside about $3 million -- between 4 percent and 5 percent of the county's payroll -- in next year's budget to pay for raises recommended by the personnel report.

A large amount of that money would go toward paying more than 600 county employees to work 40 hours a week -- rather than the 35-hour-a-week schedule that many now have. The rest of Howard's employees -- including all unionized employees -- already work 40 hours a week.

Among those on the 35-hour-a-week schedule are virtually all supervisors, managers, department heads and many other office workers. Their salaries and work hours would rise 14 percent, though many 35-hour employees -- such as department heads -- already work longer hours.

"I wouldn't call it a 14 percent raise," Ecker said. "They're going to work more, and they're going to be compensated for it."

The personnel overhaul -- Howard's first since 1981 -- is being developed with the Organizational Consulting Center at the California School of Professional Psychology in San Diego. The county has paid the center $125,000 for the work, which began more than a year ago.

An important part of that study, comparing the salaries of Howard employees to their counterparts elsewhere, is not done. It will help determine where all 1,800 employees fit in the new salary scale.

Dramatic shift

But key elements of the proposed overhaul -- still weeks or months from being final -- are becoming clear. Taken together, the changes -- which administrators hope to implement by October -- would represent a dramatic shift for employees.

The changes include:

Salaries for the county's top administrators would rise, both because of the shift to a 40-hour work week and because the high end of the salary schedule would increase. Both changes would relieve "compression," in which employees with many years of service sometimes earn as much or more than their superiors with less service.

All employees would get raises for next year of at least $600 as administrators assign them to salaries on the new scale.

For example, an employee earning $30,000 on the old scale could be moved up to $30,114 -- the nearest number that represents a raise at that grade on the new scale. If that raise is less than $600, the employee would get the difference -- $486 in the example above -- as a one-time cash bonus.

Annual longevity bonuses -- now $1,000 after 12 years and $2,000 after 16 years -- would be eliminated. People who already get these bonuses or other work bonuses would have them incorporated into their base salary for calculating their place on the new scale.

No one would get a cut in pay, but employees who earn more than the top step for their grade would have their salaries frozen until the scale rises to their level -- a process that could take several years in some cases.

The new scale would take 20 years to climb, with the fastest

raises coming in the first several years. An employee who had worked for 18 years would have to wait three years for a final raise of about 3 percent.

Supervisors would have the power to award bonuses to top employees. That change would not take effect until the budget year beginning July 1998, after a year of training for employees and supervisors.

All of the changes first would need the approval of the the County Council. The entire package also is subject to collective bargaining with the unions.

The council debate will not begin until this summer. But after preliminary briefings last week, council members are voicing few complaints.

The shift to 40-hour work weeks is especially popular.

"I just think we need to get away from the mentality that a government worker works 35 hours," said Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican, repeating one of his frequent complaints. "It's just an anachronism."

Councilwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat, endorsed Ecker's approach to the change.

"I certainly have no problem going to the 40-hour work week," Lorsung said. "But if you work 40 hours, you ought to be paid for 40 hours."

Despite the early optimism of council members, there are several issues that could turn into major fights before the package of personnel changes pass.

New scale proposed

For one, the proposed salary scale stretches far higher than its predecessor.

Under the current scale, no county employee has yet reached a salary greater than $100,000 a year -- though on the schools side, Superintendent Michael E. Hickey has broken that barrier.

Under the personnel overhaul, the new top county salary possible would be about $123,000. Employees in the top three grades would have the prospect of going over $100,000 in salary -- not including possible performance bonuses.

Coupled with the 14 percent salary increases for going to 40-hour work weeks, several top administrators could soon have salaries topping $100,000 -- a thorny political problem, particularly if wages for other workers stagnate.

Performance bonuses also may bring political problems. Many employees fear that supervisors would use them to reward their favorites and punish others -- regardless of their work.

The scale itself also could be a problem. Union officials are unhappy that it would take 20 years to climb the scale and that it focuses raises on new employees rather than seasoned ones.

The biggest problem of all would come when employees are actually assigned to a grade. All 1,800 would receive new classifications and new salaries. Some employees are certain to be unhappy.

Said Dale Chase, president of the blue-collar union, "That's the big question everybody's asking, 'Where am I going to be?' "

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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