Md. workforce shortages leading to dangerous conditions, unions say

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AFSCME members and supporters attend a hearing about state government staffing shortages in Annapolis on Tuesday. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines. (Maryland Matters/Danielle E. Gaines)

The shortage of 2,000 state employees in critical places like prisons and psychiatric hospitals is leading to unmanageable workloads and dangerous working conditions, members of the state’s largest employee union told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Jeremy Jeffers, a resident adviser at the Victor Cullen Center, a youth detention facility in Frederick County, said employees are drafted to work 16-hour shifts multiple times a week. On days when there isn’t enough staff to fully cover positions, Cullen Center residents don’t get classroom time and instead have school lessons dropped off without instruction. At the facility, Jeffers said he’s been assaulted multiple times, resulting in a partially amputated finger, several concussions, torn ligaments and a fractured ankle.

Rownite Stevens, a correctional officer at Eastern Correctional Institute in Westover, said an “extreme staffing shortage has dire consequences for the inmates who we are in charge of supervising.”

Medical appointments are delayed when there aren’t enough officers for escorts. Inmates are unsafe in the yard if there aren’t enough correctional officers to supervise. Stevens said a fight last week drew a large contingent of responding officers, leaving her and two other officers to supervise almost 400 inmates on their own.

Daily, correctional officers are drafted to work additional shifts instead of heading home.

Ikeia Cornish, a direct care assistant at Eastern Shore Hospital in Cambridge, where court-ordered patients receive treatment in psychiatric units, said workers and patients have been injured because of staffing shortages.

“We lack training, security … just time to be able to assess the clients properly so we can give them 100 percent of what they need,” she said.

A briefing about staffing shortages for members of the House Appropriations and Senate Budget & Taxation committees Tuesday was prompted, in part, by recent violent incidents, lawmakers said. But the issue is one that has been building for several years.

In January, there were about 1,970 vacancies or unfilled positions among correctional officers, the Department of State Police, Department of Juvenile Services and Department of Health, according to a staffing adequacy study by the Department of Legislative Services.

Overall, legislative analysts concluded that 1,126 more positions are needed in state government agencies and 1,505 positions that are vacant should be filled to meet staffing goals.

Maryland Budget Secretary David R. Brinkley said the average vacancy rate for state government employees is 11.8 percent, a figure that has been on the increase for the last decade, particularly for certain jobs in specific agencies.

While members of AFSCME ― the state’s largest employee union, which has repeatedly butted heads with the administration ― said Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) was falling short of a moral obligation to fully staff state agencies, the governor’s cabinet members said robust state and national economies, with near full employment of the workforce, makes it difficult for many businesses fill positions — not just the state government.

It’s an issue that started under Democratic Gov. Martin J. O’Malley, but has gotten worse since Hogan took office, AFSCME Council 3 President Patrick Moran told lawmakers.

Moran said the low staffing levels have set up a “path to failure,” and that the vulnerable populations served in hospitals and prisons aren’t receiving the therapy or rehabilitation they need to lead successful lives outside of state facilities.

“It is incredibly frustrating when someone is coming in to work to help people in need and they’re coming out bruised, beaten,” Moran said. “That’s unacceptable.”

He recently shared photos with members of the committees of injuries sustained by staff members of the Potomac Center, a state-run residential facility in Hagerstown that provides services for adults with developmental disabilities. One employee had her ear almost ripped off, another person was strangled, and others had black eyes.

Health Secretary Robert R. Neall said his agency is holding weekly conference calls about staffing levels and concerns about safety. The department has also recently worked to move violent patients out of less-secure facilities and to the state’s maximum-security psychiatric facility, Clifton T. Perkins Hospital.

Since May, there has been a 36 percent reduction in vacancies at the state’s five psychiatric hospitals and two mental health residential treatment facilities for adolescents, Neall said.

Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Robert Green, who has been in the position for about six months, said he understands and fully embraces the urgency of the understaffing issue. He estimated that the state needs to fill about 1,200 correctional officer positions.

So far this year, the department has hired 538 new employees, including 231 correctional officers. Another 257 people are going through the application process to become correctional officers, Green said.

The department has streamlined the hiring process and has given dozens of conditional hiring offers at job events. The Hogan administration raised the starting salary for new correctional officers to $42,013.

Brinkley said the administration has focused $467 million in salary enhancements in the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years to hard-to-fill positions.

Overall, state employee salaries have gone up about 18 percent during the Hogan administration and the average employee salary has increased from $50,700 to $59,800, Brinkley said.

Those figures were met by gasps in the hearing room, where AFSCME union members filled every available seat.

“Where? Where!?” members shouted.

Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery) said it was disingenuous to talk about average state employee salaries when committee members have heard stories of state government workers who earn less than $15 an hour after more than a decade of employment. He also noted that salary increases for some unions have been more favorable than others. AFSCME and the administration have been in a standoff when it comes to collective bargaining and stalled negotiations last year were referred to the State Labor Relations Board.

Moran and AFSCME members urged the committee to pursue additional hiring and retention incentives, including an expansion of the student loan forgiveness program Hogan launched last year, updated job descriptions, and increased salaries ― for new hires and long-term state employees.

“I would urge you to use every single oversight tool you have to push the administration to do their job to provide the taxpayers of Maryland with the services they have paid for,” Moran told the committees.

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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