Taking a hit

The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley is proposing temporary furloughs for more than 67,000 state employees and a shutdown of state government operations for two days during the coming holidays, according to internal documents provided yesterday to The Baltimore Sun.

The proposal would save $34.4 million and help to keep the anemic state budget in the black, according to a letter from Budget Secretary T. Eloise Foster addressed to union officials and provided to The Sun and other news outlets. While the O'Malley administration doesn't need approval from labor unions - a key constituency for the governor - contours of the proposal were hammered out in consultation with union officials.

O'Malley, a Democrat, met with union officials last week and asked them to share the burden of budget cutting that has affected nearly every state agency. He promised to compensate them for sacrifices when economic times improve, according to participants in that meeting.

"We're not thrilled, of course," said Debra Perry, president of AFT Health Care Maryland, which represents 2,000 nurses, doctors, epidemiologists and other employees, mostly at the state health department. "But we're all in agreement that, yes, we know this is the reality, and we're all trying to figure out how everybody should have some part of it."

The furlough plan has not been finalized, and the O'Malley administration faces push-back from unions, which could come as soon as today, during previously scheduled mid-contract negotiations. The largest, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, plans to offer counterproposals. Several unions said they plan to get feedback from members.

"We'll probably have a counterproposal," said Patrick Moran, Maryland director of AFSCME, which represents more than 30,000 state workers. "And I guarantee you it's not going to be the exact same thing they're proposing to us."

The plan would affect workers according to a sliding scale, with those making more than $60,000 a year having to take five furlough days. Employees making less than $40,000 a year would take furlough days Dec. 26 and Jan. 2, when state operations would be shut down. Workers who fall between those two ranges must take four days. O'Malley, whose salary is set at about $150,000 a year, would lose five days' pay.

Among those covered by the plan: Motor Vehicle Administration clerks, biologists at the Department of Natural Resources, urban planners and employees at the University System of Maryland. Emergency personnel in health and public safety, including state police, would be exempt from having to take furloughs, and the furlough scheme doesn't apply to the legislative or judicial branches, which O'Malley doesn't control.

One state worker interviewed yesterday said such a furlough plan might be a solution to save permanent positions.

"It's good to spread the pain. I'd rather see everybody take a little bit of the hit than to have people lose their jobs," said David Fisher, a Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation employee. "I've been unemployed, and I know what it's like. I don't want to wish that on anybody, especially this time of year heading into the new year. I'm willing to do my share."

Fisher, who would lose five work days, added that he works a second job in order to support his wife and two kids, and that the potential loss of income will effect his financial situation. "But not so that I can't survive," he said. "We'll make adjustments."

By creating mandatory long holiday weekends, the state would save overhead costs by not opening buildings those days. The resulting salary reductions would be spread over the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends June 30, to mitigate the financial burden on families of the lowest paid workers.

The budget-cutting measures are being proposed as the economic recession has lowered tax collections. State budget forecasters are expected to reduce revenue estimates for this budget year by $200 million, leaving a $150 million deficit in the $14 billion state operating budget. The governor plans to propose a number of reductions in coming weeks to keep the budget balanced, as required by law.

Roughly half of the savings from furloughs would come from higher education. Joseph Vivona, chief operating officer of the University System of Maryland, said officials will meet with presidents of the system's 11 public universities by week's end to work out the logistics of complying with a furlough plan. He said it was "way too early" to predict which workers would be asked to take unpaid days off, except to say that campus emergency workers "would be excluded, no matter what."

Unions might seek changes to the sliding scale, such as requiring that higher-paid workers take even more furlough days, and several officials said they would seek assurances that employees could recoup lost pay in the future.

The furlough proposal is similar to one used during the 1992 recession, the last time workers were required to take unpaid days off to help ease a budget crisis. Despite his misgivings about the plan, Moran of AFSCME said the progressive system "is more equitable" than requiring all workers to take the same amount of time off.

The plan would affect some unions more than others. For example, the Maryland Professional Employees Council, a division of the American Federation of Teachers, represents about 5,000 better-compensated workers, such as scientists, engineers and skilled administrators.

George Myers, the union's president, said members support the notion of a sliding scale, even though it disproportionately affects them. "We're in bad times," Myers said. "Everybody understands that, and obviously everybody has to take a hit."

But when his bargaining team meets with O'Malley officials today, Myers' union will be looking for "tacit approval" from the governor that "when times are better he will remember" the union's support for the furlough plan.

Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman, said the governor will continue to be "very supportive" of labor, noting the administration has made Maryland the first state to pass a law requiring that government contractors pay workers a "living wage."

"The governor treats our state work force like a partner in helping move our state forward," Abbruzzese said. "Hopefully, our labor leaders appreciate that."

Baltimore Sun reporter Brent Jones contributed to this article.

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