Many work for state without benefits 'Contractual workers' in Md. lack sick leave, other protections

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Kim Butler got sick and had to miss a week of work, her co-workers at the Department of Social Services office on Broadway in Baltimore took up a collection to help pay her bills.

Although Butler works full time as an administrator, she is one of a growing number of state employees who do not get benefits many others take for granted, such as medical insurance, sick leave, vacation time and basic job protections.

The employees are called "contractual workers" because they sign annual contracts to work for the state. They get paid only for the days they work. An illness means lost wages for the time missed and a pile of medical bills they are responsible for paying.

"It's like a whole subclass of workers that seems to be overwhelmingly women and African-Americans," said Kim Keller, an area director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 92, a union representing state employees.

It is a subclass that grew dramatically as Maryland cut about 3,900 full-time, permanent positions to save money since 1991. In many cases, state agencies hired cheaper contractual workers to fill the gap.

The state acknowledges that the practice not only creates a hardship for workers, but ultimately is bad business for taxpayers -- since turnover in such jobs leads to increased training costs and lower productivity.

More than 30,000 full- or part-time contractual employees worked for state agencies during 1996, the last year for which firm figures are available. Some stayed just a few weeks, others the entire year -- working as clerks, counselors, typists, nurses, biologists and in other positions throughout Maryland government.

Their collective hours represented the equivalent of 6,972 full-time positions -- a figure that had doubled over 10 years, according to a state Department of Budget and Management report issued in December. By comparison, the state had roughly 70,000 full-time permanent employees.

The budget department report was prompted by a task force Gov. Parris N. Glendening appointed to look at reforms to the state's personnel management system. The task force found that long-term contractual employment was "neither in the best interest of the state or the employee."

The budget department report agreed, saying that while a contractual worker gets compensated at about 80 percent of the cost for a permanent position, the saving "rapidly erodes when training costs, turnover and morale are considered."

Entry-level state workers hired under contract leave those jobs as soon as they find better positions with benefits and more security -- increasing state training costs and reducing productivity.

"In addition, there are fairness issues that must be confronted for those situations where contractual employees perform essentially the same functions as permanent employees yet are compensated differently," the report said.

Maryland Budget Secretary Frederick W. Puddester agreed that it is not a good situation for state workers to have to take up collections to help full-time co-workers like Butler, who simply had the misfortune of missing work because she was sick.

"It certainly reflects badly on the state as an employer," Puddester said.

He said contractual positions make sense in certain circumstances -- such as seasonal or part-time work -- but are not intended for full-time work that has to be done on a continuing basis.

When Maryland turned to cheaper, contractual labor in the early 1990s as a way to deal with its budget problems, it was following a trend in the national economy.

"Over the past 20 years, there's been a dramatic expansion of the proportion of the work force in what you might call irregular employment -- everything from temporary workers to people employed on fixed-term contracts and part-time workers," said Sanford M. Jacoby, a professor of management and policy studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Jacoby said recent figures suggest that about a third of the U.S. work force is in irregular jobs, often receiving fewer benefits and less security than regular workers.

Trying to reverse trend

In Maryland, Puddester said, state officials are beginning to take steps to reverse that trend.

He noted, for instance, that the General Assembly agreed to create 250 new permanent positions in the fiscal 1997 state budget if 1.5 contractual jobs were abolished for each permanent job filled.

About 600 contractual workers have moved into permanent state jobs since 1997, officials said, although they could not say how many new contractual workers were hired during the period.

"I would look for a major effort to convert contractual positions to permanent positions in the fiscal year 2000 budget, which will be drafted this fall and voted on in the next legislative session," Puddester said.

AFSCME's Keller said part of the problem is that individual agencies do not necessarily follow guidelines set by personnel administrators that would allow the conversion of contractual slots to permanent positions.

"I think it's a runaway train at this point, with nobody in central control to deal with converting contractual employees," Keller said. "It's cheaper to use these folks, so they will continue to do it."

Hoping for change

Brenda A. Russell is hoping that will change.

A human services worker at the Department of Social Services adult services division at Mondawmin Mall in Baltimore, Russell said she has been living with the uncertainty of a contractual job for 18 months.

She said she is raising two grandchildren at home and periodically works part-time jobs to help pay the $240 a month it costs to get medical insurance through the state. The state pays 80 percent to 85 percent of the insurance premiums of permanent workers, but contractual workers have to pay the full cost.

Russell said she has heard of some cases of contractual workers in social services agencies having to leave their jobs "and in fact become clients" to get benefits they couldn't get through their full-time state jobs.

"That's the position they were in," she said. "They couldn't do anything else financially."

Russell and others said contractual workers often come to work when they are sick because they can't afford to stay home.

Butler said doctors recommended that she take two weeks off from work after she was taken to the hospital by ambulance with chest pains last March.

"Because the bills were piling up, I had to go back to work after one week," said Butler, who has been a state contractual worker since 1992 and in her position as a social services administrator since 1993.

Butler said she was surprised and grateful when a co-worker, Tracey A. Cole, initiated a collection at the office that raised about $165. Butler said her medical expenses came to almost $3,000.

"I used to be a contractual, so I know what it's like to lose time," Cole said. "You don't work, you don't get paid. On top of that you have the medical expenses. You can't afford to stay off work."

Sara V. Haygood, a Department of Human Resources administrator at the agency's headquarters in Baltimore, said co-workers raised money for her, too, when she suffered a severe asthma attack that kept her out of work for four weeks.

"I feel like something should be done to cover contractual workers when they are out sick, especially for a major sickness," said Haygood, who has been a contractual worker for five years and would like to become a permanent employee.

Sue Esty, legislative director for AFSCME Council 92, said the issue boils down to one of treating state workers fairly.

"It's blatantly unfair to have two employees, side-by-side, doing the exact same work, with one getting less benefits than the other, and who can be fired at the drop of a hat," Esty said. "It doesn't make sense for the employees or for state government."

Pub Date: 7/14/98

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