State Workers Fear Pay Cuts, Job Losses, Insurance Cost Hikes

AFSCME Council 3 workers drove in a caravan recently in an appeal to the Board of Public Works for safer workplaces during the pandemic. Photo by Hannah Gaskill

Salary cuts, job losses and rising health insurance costs are among the consequences some state workers fear as state officials re-examine spending plans amid a major economic downturn driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A document from the Department of Budget and Management, dated June 17 and obtained by Maryland Matters, lays out a series of proposed cuts aimed at state employees, including:

  • reducing both filled and vacant positions across state agencies;
  • eliminating raises and cost of living salary increases for fiscal year 2021;
  • reducing salaries by 5%, starting July 1;
  • no longer considering paid leave as work time when calculating overtime payment;
  • changing health benefit expenditures.

The Board of Public Works, which has sole domain over the state budget when the General Assembly is not in session, is expected to vote on a round of spending cuts at its next meeting, on Wednesday, the first day of fiscal year 2021.

Leaders from unions representing state employees said they were given insufficient time – just one week — to respond to the proposals, which they described as harmful and unfair to state employees.

The budget cuts are “draconian”, the Maryland Professional Employees Council said in a statement. “The Administration’s request for long-term, recurring structural changes to address the problems of a single, short-term occurrence is inherently unfair.  DBM’s proposal demonstrated little compassion for state employees, and we cannot allow the shield of this pandemic to be utilized as a sword to diminish labor standards.”

AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran said he hopes the Board of Public Works does not pursue drastic measures, adding that there are “plenty of other avenues and paths the state could take” to avoid making these cuts.

“Our folks are on the frontlines providing essential services to Maryland during a pandemic and they want to cut those services,” Moran said.

“This is going to be destructive not only to working families that are employed by the state but working families throughout the state of Maryland and that’s just crazy. You’re hurting the state’s economy — you’re hurting state services, but you can expect nothing less from an administration that doesn’t believe in public service.”

Moran argued that more information was needed before making cuts in haste.

“There are a lot of unknowns still out there,” he said, noting the potential passage of another round of CARES Act funding in the works on Capitol Hill and the fact that Maryland’s books for the 2020 fiscal year likely won’t be completely closed out until the fall.

“We are concerned about you asking our members to take any steps towards the budget in one fell swoop when we don’t know what’s going to happen three, six, nine months down the road — you just don’t know that,” Moran said in an interview. “And it seems incredibly reactionary.”

Many of the state’s departments have been short staffed for quite a while, according to AFSCME.

Ashley Watson, an AFSCME union member and case management specialist for the Department of Juvenile Services, said that her department was understaffed before the pandemic.

With proposed salary, staffing and benefit cuts, she worries about the quality of care, programs and services that the young people in her southern Prince George’s County facility will receive, and that less attention could cause an extension of their stays.

Watson said that staffing has been up and down throughout her 12 years with the department, but has remained fairly low because state employees haven’t received raises under the Hogan administration.

“When it’s hard to retain employees, you get a lower caliber of an employee who is just there as a stepping stone — not somebody who’s really invested in state service,” she explained.

The administration argument

“The governor took a series of actions early on to prevent as much damage to our state budget as possible,” Michael Ricci, a spokesman for Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), told Maryland Matters in an email. “He tapped into the Rainy Day Fund, instituted a hiring freeze and budget freeze, and vetoed legislation that would require increased spending to become law.”

Ricci said that Hogan is now urging federal lawmakers to do the same.

“The revenue losses we face require painful choices, including possible layoffs,” he said. “The governor is working hard to push Congress to act and avoid that scenario.”

Watson said these proposals are “a slap in the face to frontline workers” from the Hogan administration, and that he should reconsider.

“We worked through this pandemic, and, at the end, he’s basically thanking us for our service and for taking care of the state with basically shooting us in the foot, saying, ‘Oh well, you did what you had to do, but that wasn’t good enough,’” she said. “‘Not only am I not going to thank you, I’m going to take away your pay’ and taking away our pay and my fellow coworkers possibly losing their jobs is only a domino effect.”

Watson said that she wouldn’t be surprised if a five percent pay cut led workers to flee to government jobs in nearby Washington, D.C., or Virginia. She plans to stay on board and try to keep up, but if the enacted cuts wage too large of a toll on her family’s income, she said she would consider leaving.

“If Gov. Hogan is thinking about taking five percent of our salary, we’re gonna lose a lot of people to neighboring counties, neighboring states, local government — they’re going to be paid at a higher rate,” she said. “We’re already losing state employees prior to the pandemic to local, state and federal governments, and now with the pay cut or … laying people off, we would definitely be in more of a staffing crisis than we are now.”

Lawmakers are weighing in on the state’s budget adjustments as well.

Del. Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) said the state workers he has spoken with are under no delusion that something needs to be done in the face of the deficit, but that they want a seat at the table in the negotiation process.

“In general, I think everyone understands that something has to happen here — that we have a balanced budget requirement and are, you know, staring at a pretty significant shortfall,” said Korman. “It’s just a question of what gets done and how it’s decided, and I think everyone would just like to see a little bit more collaboration and notice and flexibility by the administration instead of the continued, you know, ‘Our way or the highway, it’s an emergency — we’ve got this’ approach.”

Korman said hasty decisions will exacerbate the already tense situation between workers and the state and that there’s still time to plan despite fiscal year 2020’s impending close.

“We already have a beleaguered state workforce. We’ve had high vacancy rates in a number of areas for a long time, and piling this on top of it, obviously, just makes that worse, especially at a time when many of them are really on the frontlines of this pandemic,” Korman said. “The fiscal year hasn’t even started yet, so there is some time to make this decision. Not everything has to be done at the first Board of Public Works meeting of fiscal year 21.”

Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.