Shared pain in '91 saved state workers' jobs

The Baltimore Sun

Steve Steurer framed both letters and hung them on his office wall as a "reality check."

The first one, signed on Oct. 2, 1991, by the Maryland schools superintendent - then as now, Nancy S. Grasmick - regretfully informed him that he was being let go. Steurer was one of the 1,766 state employees who were targeted for layoffs as a recession - then as now - plunged the state budget into deficit.

But it is perhaps the second letter, dated Oct. 23, 1991, that is particularly instructive, as seemingly every day, both the public and private sectors unload more and more employees. The second letter says he is being reinstated.

What happened in the 11 days between the two letters was a remarkable, and successful, effort by a group of workers who didn't accept that layoffs were inevitable and saved their jobs.

"We were told there's going to be a cut, that's it," Steurer said.

But is it, then or now? I don't think every layoff can be prevented, particularly today as the economy seems to be in some sort of frightening and endless free fall. But as employers can't seem to fire their workers fast enough, I wonder if there isn't some sort of contagion, some sort of panic that is fueling these huge job losses, and if anyone is even taking a moment to think of possible alternatives.

I remember a friend telling me about a newspaper she worked for in Pennsylvania once, where it was something of a point of pride that during the Great Depression, the owners managed not to fire a single employee. Maybe those days are gone forever.

Steurer, now 64, was academic coordinator for Maryland's prison education program, which was going to be eliminated by Gov. William Donald Schaefer as he sought to close a $450 million budget deficit.

Looking at the stories The Sun wrote then, I was struck by how with just a few changes here and there they could almost run in today's paper. Then, it was companies like the long-gone USF&G; and Maryland National Bank announcing layoffs; today it's Legg Mason (appropriately enough, headquartered in the old USF&G; building) and Bank of America (which merged with the bank that swallowed up MNB) that are among the endless stream of companies that have been laying off staff.

Then, it was Schaefer mournfully conceding that cutbacks in services could turn back the state's recent progress; today it's Gov. Martin O'Malley saying he can't sugarcoat what will be some painful reductions. While the federal economic stimulus plan could end up changing the grim prognosis, he recently raised the prospect of laying off 700 state employees as part of a plan to make up a $2 billion budget shortfall.

Back in 1991, the toll on the state work force was even deeper - Schaefer proposed cutting 1,766 employees, including state troopers and medevac employees, as well as eliminating or severely curtailing aid for some of the most vulnerable in the state, like the poor and disabled, to close the deficit.

Among Schaefer's proposals was to wipe out all prisoner education programs, laying off the 163 employees who conducted GED and other classes and operated libraries for the inmates, to save about $5 million annually.

With nothing to lose anyway, the prison educators decided to fight back.

"We said, 'Don't fire us, we've got a plan,' " Steurer said. The plan was for everyone to work four- rather than five-day weeks, and take a matching 20 percent pay cut. Armed with research showing that educational programs reduce recidivism, and with prison officials on their side, loath to be left with suddenly idled inmates, the teachers made their case. They signed up to testify before legislative committees, met with Grasmick and were ultimately re-instated - although at 80 percent of their previous work hours and salary.

Steurer is now executive director of the Correctional Education Association, a nonprofit professional organization based in Elkridge that he had started to work with when he was still with the state. He retired in 2004 from the state.

I don't know that a group of employees could similarly save their jobs this way now - and I'm amazed at how quickly it all went down.

I talked to Fred Puddester, more recently in the news as the head of the pro-slots initiative but back in 1991one of Schaefer's budget chiefs. Despite the dire predicament the state faced in 1991 - news accounts quote Archbishop William Keeler jumping into the fray to help protect the poor from losing assistance - Puddester thinks Annapolis faces an even worse crisis today.

"In '91, we were coming off of several years of robust revenue growth," Puddester said. "We sort of bulked up. State government has been sort of starved the last several years. So the patient has started off a little weaker today."

Still, he, like O'Malley, is optimistic that federal stimulus legislation will go a long way toward helping states like Maryland weather the recession.

As for Steurer, he hopes there's a lesson from his own small victory in a previous recession that applies to today's.

"When things are really tough," he said, "I think it's helpful if everyone can spread the pain a little bit."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad