Maryland might have shortchanged as many as 13,000 employees by as much as $30 per pay period for as long as two decades, state officials announced Friday.
A switch to a computerized payroll system this spring highlighted a problem with the way overtime and shift pay were calculated for employees who are called upon to work during emergencies and in dangerous situations, such as in hospitals and prisons.
Budget Secretary David Brinkley said the state doesn't know the scope of the problem or how much the state owes workers.
"We're still trying wrap our arms around this," Brinkley said. "We are committed to making this right."
Maryland previously relied on manual, paper-based systems that differed across the state's 20 departments and 50,000-member workforce. Some of the systems are more than 20 years old.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's administration completed a project this year to move everyone to a single computerized system. In testing the new payroll system, Brinkley said, officials discovered discrepancies in checks for workers who earn overtime or extra pay for staffing night shifts.
Union officials said they've been complaining for years about payroll problems, and Friday marked the first time the state acknowledged it was a systemic issue.
"Our members were right and state bureaucrats are wrong," said Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3. "They have an obligation, in our eyes, to pay every single person every penny they owe."
Moran said that for some longtime state workers, that could add up to as much as $20,000 or $30,000.
State officials said the mistakes could be as little as $2 or as much as $30 per pay period, and could affect, at most, about a quarter of the state's workforce.
Brinkley said the administration wants to be "transparent" about the problem and the solution, and emphasized that employees are receiving proper pay under the new system.
Some union members disagreed, saying checks that were issued Wednesday were incorrect.
Alfonso Wise, 44, said Friday he noticed his paycheck was off by about $30 a few weeks ago. He checked after he heard co-workers complaining about getting shortchanged.
He's not sure how many times he's been underpaid over the past 18 years, during which time he's worked as a security nurse at Clifton T. Perkins, a state psychiatric hospital.
"I don't know how long this might have been going on," Wise said. "The money matters. I'm a father of five, I have two daughters in college. It adds up."
Because the pay records are often on paper and the state is only required to retain them for three years, it could be challenging to identify precisely how many workers were underpaid by how much, state officials said.
Brinkley said it's also possible some of those workers could be overpaid, but the state is focused on remedying the situation with workers whose paychecks were too small.
Workers in four unions — AFSCME, AFT-Healthcare Maryland, the State Law Enforcement Officer's Labor Alliance, and the Maryland Professional Employees Council — were notified by email Friday about the problem. State officials say they plan to meet with the unions next week to negotiate a solution.
Brinkley said he was unable to estimate how much the mistake would cost the state, but laid blame on the administrations that came before Hogan's.
"We're cleaning up the mess in Annapolis," Brinkley said. "This is very much the kind of things that the administration is very focused on."
The digital payroll system was part of a multiyear project launched under Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley.