Judge orders county to pay back wages; Workers' week grew from 35 hours to 40, but paychecks didn't; Personnel Board overruled; 67 employees due $600,000 for 2 years' work; unions pleased


An Anne Arundel County judge has handed the county what amounts to a bill for $600,000 in back pay for 67 employees whose workweek was increased but whose paychecks were not.

Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner ruled last week that the county could not retroactively apply a law it did not change until three months after 1996 union contracts took effect. The retroactive application of the law denied workers more pay when their workweek was increased to 40 hours from 35. Lerner said that was unconstitutional.

His ruling contradicts the county Personnel Board, which denied the employees' grievances. The board was directed to determine the amount of back pay owed.

Locals 582 and 2563 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees were delighted with the ruling.

About $300,000 a year would be needed for two years to pay the 67 employees whose grievances were heard two years ago. But more than twice that many workers saw their workweek grow by five hours. The union's lawyer has vowed to win increases for all affected workers, which could push the bill to more than $1 million.

"If the intent of them negotiating with us was them increasing the hours from 35 to 40 hours, that's fine. But not without the money," said Scott Harmon, president of Local 582.

John G. Gary, who was defeated in November for re-election as county executive, sought the change in the law. He called Lerner's ruling "absurd," saying the state successfully took similar action with its workers several years ago. The county change was part of a job-classification restructuring designed to turn a hodgepodge of pay scales and hours into 40-hour workweeks that gave employees comparable pay for comparable work.

Union members, who said they were forced to effectively take pay cuts while other workers were paid more, did not see it that way.

"I think it was just trying to squeeze as much out of the employees as possible," said Francis J. Collins, the unions' lawyer.

The case is the second setback for the county on employee pay since Gary's defeat. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the county's appeal of its loss in a lower court concerning paying paramedics overtime. That case could cost the county an estimated $4 million for about a decade of back pay.

Gary said he strongly favored an appeal. The new county executive, Democrat Janet S. Owens, said she had not seen Lerner's ruling and, through a spokesman, declined to comment.

Attorneys for the county said they were unsure whether they would challenge Lerner's decision in the Court of Special Appeals.

In July 1996, the county and the two AFSCME locals agreed to increase the workweek of 35-hour blue-collar and white-collar clerical employees. The contract did not specify that they would get more money for the five additional hours, but a section of the county code provided for a 14.2857 percent pay increase.

In September 1996, the County Council modified the code to eliminate the salary increase. That change was made retroactive to July 1996. Workers filed grievances, but Personnel Officer E. Hilton Wade said the issue could not be grieved. Whether Wade persuaded some workers not to file grievances and whether others' grievances got lost in personnel offices was a sore point between the unions and the county.

That year, workers got bonuses of $400 or $600, depending on their local. The county argued that the bonuses were in exchange for the longer workweek and that negotiators had agreed to waive a raise. The unions disagreed. Lerner, in a 10-page opinion signed Thursday, said there was no evidence to support the county's contention.

After hearings in December 1996, the Personnel Board denied the grievances. "To do otherwise would grant to the unions concessions that they had not sought at the bargaining table or County Council chamber," the board wrote.

Union members appealed the Personnel Board ruling in February 1997.

Pub Date: 1/05/99

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