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Maryland halts extra pay for front-line state workers

Madeleine O'Neill
USA TODAY NETWORK

Maryland has ended COVID-19 response pay for thousands of front-line state employees, including many correctional officers, according to the largest union for state workers.

The response pay, which gave certain state employees an elevated hourly rate for working during the pandemic, ended on Tuesday and will not be renewed, a state official told unions Thursday evening.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Maryland Council 3 raised the alarm about the cuts on Friday.

"AFSCME was informed after close of business yesterday that elevated COVID-19 pay for our essential employees working at jobsites throughout the pandemic has been unilaterally canceled by the Hogan administration," the union said.

Eastern Correctional Institution

The cuts will affect correctional officers, state hospital workers, juvenile service workers and other essential state employees, such as social workers, according to AFSCME. Police officers will also be affected.

The state clarified Friday that employees who work in quarantine areas with COVID-19 patients will continue receiving an additional $5.13 per hour.

"Response Pay has ended but the additional pay differential for employees working in quarantine areas will continue," wrote Cindy Kollner, the executive director of the state's Office of Personnel Services and Benefits, in a followup email to union leaders.

AFSCME President Patrick Moran said that does little to help employees who work outside quarantine areas in prisons and state hospitals, where social distancing is often impossible.

"The administration needs to fight the pandemic, not its employees," Moran said. "Since day one, our members have been working diligently, showing up every day in order to get the job done and fight this in every venue that they are working."

Two AFSCME members have died and at least 800 have contracted COVID-19 at work, the union said.

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State employees who had to keep reporting for on-site work received double pay early in the pandemic, but Maryland's Department of Budget and Management soon ended the extra pay.

The state later offered a pay increase of $3.13 for certain state employees who worked "24/7" jobs, including state police and firefighters. Employees who had to work in a quarantine area could also receive an additional $2 in hourly pay.

Moran said more than 10,000 state employees will now lose the extra $3.13 per hour.

Nicholas Pepersack, the deputy chief of staff in the state's Department of Budget and Management, said Friday that there is less need to incentivize essential work as Maryland enters stage 3 of its coronavirus recovery plan.

"The state paid essential personnel more than their salaries at the beginning of the pandemic to help ensure continuity of services, and these payments continued through Stage Two of the recovery," he wrote in an email. "The purpose of this was to incentivize essential personnel to work when there were so many unanswered questions about the virus itself and how it spreads."

"With our state moving into the next stage of recovery and more people going back to work, there is less of a need for this temporary program," he wrote.

AFSCME has argued that employees who are required to report to work during an emergency condition, such as the pandemic, should still be receiving double pay under a memorandum of understanding with the state.

The union filed a massive group grievance over the loss of double pay in June.

AFSCME also criticized Gov. Larry Hogan's administration for not using the state's remaining CARES Act funds to pay state employees more.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

"The federal government allocated resources to help states in paying overtime and extra wages, things of that nature, in the CARES Act," Moran said. "They don't seem to be using that money that was allocated for this toward these needs."

The state has also refused to provide an accounting of how many state employees have been sickened during the pandemic, Moran said.

"We want our folks to be able to go back to their homes and their communities and not worry about spreading the virus," Moran said.

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Ed Reagan, a correctional officer at Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown, said in a statement that prison employees have been working in worse conditions than usual to protect themselves and inmates from COVID-19.

"In return, the gratitude we get from Governor Hogan and his people is taking away the pay to work in such conditions, and threats to cut our pay even more," said Reagan, of Funkstown.