As State Tightens Purse Strings, Essential Workers Demand Better Conditions

The House Oversight Committee on Personnel met with members of AFSCME Council 3 and Department of Budget and Management leadership at a virtual hearing Wednesday. Screen shot by Hannah Gaskill.

Judith Ekhelar works as a correctional officer at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup. And even though she works in a long-term congregate-care facility, she says there is no guarantee that the state will provide personal protective equipment, employees and inmates aren’t tested often enough for COVID-19, and conditions for workers continue to deteriorate.

“This situation is not getting any better,” she told the House Oversight Committee on Personnel in video testimony played during a meeting Wednesday afternoon. “We know that the second wave is so on the rise.”

Ekhelar said that Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services employees on the ground are running out of sick leave, and are being made to spend their personal days if they fall ill or need to quarantine. She also said that their hazard pay has all but dried up.

“Clearly, we are having problems,” Ekhelar declared. “Things are not what they seem.”

“Please help us,” she implored.

She isn’t the only state employee who feels that way. 

Ekhelar and three other state employees represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Maryland Council 3, testified to lawmakers about the conditions they endure as they are made to work in person during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Despite their testimonies being from different agencies and such, there’s going to be one common theme, and that is inadequacy,” said Lance Kilpatrick, the political and legislative director for AFSCME Council 3. “Inadequacy of access to PPE [and] planning; inadequacy in testing and contact tracing; inadequacy of staffing; and inadequacy of pay for their service and sacrifice that they’re making to keep Maryland moving forward during this pandemic.”

Department of Budget and Management Secretary David R. Brinkley said that guidelines from the Maryland Department of Health and the federal government shift week-by-week, but that procedural coordination isn’t uniform because the departments have different needs based on the populations that they serve.

“Keep in mind the responsibilities that a department has, or an office environment, might be different,” he told the committee. “So what corrections is having to deal with because they have populations that live [inside] and cannot go outside the facility…they have a certain set of guidelines and thresholds that they have to follow versus the people that potentially could work from home.”

No consistent approach

When it comes to reporting confirmed cases among government employees, Department of Legislative Services staffer Jason Kramer said that there are no statewide standards. 

Public-facing agencies with limited telework ability, like the Department of Health, the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and the Department of Juvenile Services, sometimes have regularly updated COVID-19 dashboards on their agency websites.

But agencies that mostly telework don’t because of problems with privacy and self-reporting.

“I would say there’s not really a consistent approach to tracking cases among state employees,” Kramer told the committee Wednesday afternoon.

To protect employee confidentiality, the Department of Budget and Management does not universally track cases across state agencies.

Kramer said that if a state employee tests positive, they are to work with their agency’s human resources department to determine if they came into contact with their coworkers. Those who are determined to have come into contact with an infected individual are to be notified by management.

Kim Henson, an AFCSME member and employee at the state Motor Vehicle Administration’s Glen Burnie location, told lawmakers that this isn’t always the case.

“Back in October, I contracted COVID from work,” she said. “I learned about this from an employee who put a post on her Facebook page.” 

“Management was not making us aware of anyone who had COVID,” Henson said. “Employees are learning about this from each other.”

According to Celina Sargusingh, an AFSCME member and clinic coordinator on the University of Maryland College Park campus, there are some supervisors who are aware of potential exposures but choose to brush them off entirely.

“There are managers who are telling workers, ‘Well, you weren’t around them for that long, so you can come into work,’” she said. “That is not a manager’s job, that is a medical professional’s decision.”

Kilpatrick agreed.

“It’s been my experience that, time and again, the issues are with the frontline supervisors and managers,” he said.

Cindy Kollner, the executive director of the Department of Budget and Management’s Office of Personnel Services and Benefits, said that early on in the pandemic, DBM implemented screening protocols for anyone who enters a state building and universal work guidance for each state agency. 

“I wanted to drive those [screening] questions to the HR directors that have the guidance from DBM, as opposed to having individual supervisors make different determinations based on their interpretation,” she said. “We want the final decision to be made by the agency HR leaders in each of the agencies.”

What about hazard pay?

In the early days of the pandemic, the Department of Budget and Management paid employees who had to report to work in person time-and-a-half, which added up to almost $40 million.

Once the proper protocol was put in place, the department began tacking an additional $3.13 per hour onto essential employees’ pay “as an incentive to make sure we had people come” to work, said Brinkley. This ended when the DBM leaders were certain that they had the technology and capacity to screen all essential employees.

If state employees were made to monitor quarantined people in a congregate facility, they were paid an additional $5.13 — which still happens today. 

This extra pay is covered, in part, by federal CARES Act funding, which expires on Dec. 31. Brinkley said that his department would continue to dole out quarantine pay into the new year 

Additionally, Kollner said that the Department of Budget and Management has added an additional 80 hours’ of paid leave outside of standard personal and sick leave for employees who have to endure multiple quarantines.

Officials are also considering providing the 80 excess hours of paid leave in 2021, but have not made a final decision.

When asked if hazard pay is still being offered to employees who must report to work — outside of the excess pay for those supervising quarantined individuals — Brinkley said “it’s not,” and that his department doesn’t see the need to reinstate it “at this point in time.”

“If we end up with some major challenges — staffing challenges — going forward then maybe we have to,” he explained. “But right now, we’re still trying to deal with the fiscal impact of all this stuff.”

Sargusingh, the College Park clinic supervisor, told the committee that she has “received not $1 of hazard pay.”

“I am considered an essential employee in my appointment information, but what I am is an expendable employee because they just throw us into the fire,” she said.

Brinkley said that the Department of Budget and Management does not oversee the state’s university system, and that the majority of the emails he receives from AFSCME members are about hazard pay.

“I got to tell you that 98% of the emails I received from AFSCME members had nothing to do with safety,” Brinkley said. “They had everything to do with more money.”

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