Denied raises, Prince George’s workers could get bonuses

May 17, 2011

An eleventh-hour deal that could lead to one-time bonuses for Prince George’s nearly 6,000 employees marks a truce between the County Council and County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) over a $1.2 million pay increase he said was un­affordable. But a lawsuit from union workers is likely, officials said.

In a 5 to 3 vote Tuesday, the council voted down a 2 percent raise for about 1,500 county employees who are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

But in private discussions between some council members and Baker, each side held out the possibility that the county would be able to fund bonuses for all county workers this year. Council Chairman Ingrid Turner (D-Bowie) signaled the outlines of the deal in a letter to Baker that discussed similar one-time $750 bonuses for state employees.

Such bonuses for county workers would cost $5 million to $6 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The payments would not be rolled into base pay and would not affect pensions or future raises.

“I think the council did a great job of struggling with a difficult situation,” Baker said in an interview, adding that he would “seriously consider the bonuses.”

However, union negotiator C.J. Ross said AFSCME would file an unfair-labor-practices complaint against the county.

“We are just devastated,” Ross said of the union, which represents crossing guards and nurses, among other workers. “This is the first time in 31 or more years that the council has turned down an AFSCME-negotiated contract. . . . We believe the county has negotiated in bad faith.”

Although the pay dispute simmers, council members and Baker are scheduled to get pay raises in December. The council approved those hikes — which are attached to increases in the consumer price index — last year for the new council elected in November. The part-time legislators earn $96,417 a year — the highest in Maryland. The county executive is paid $174,540.

Baker had pushed hard to derail the 2 percent pay increase for the 1,500 workers that had been agreed to by predecessor Jack B. Johnson (D). Baker said he worried that increasing pay for a group of workers would force his administration to approve raises for all county employees, which would cost $12 million annually.

Baker also said handing out raises would hurt the county’s credibility in Annapolis after he and other local officials secured extra funds from the state during the recent General Assembly session.

Union officials and county workers suggested last week that the county could afford the raises if it cut programs, such as Baker’s planned $50 million economic development fund, which some dubbed a “developer bailout.”

Tuesday’s council debate was laced with emotion. Many of the workers sat in the audience, wearing green T-shirts emblazoned with their union logo. Council member Obie Patterson (D-Fort Washington), who provided a key vote against the salary increase, wept before casting his vote.

Patterson, a former member of the House of Delegates, said he had always supported unionized workers but felt he had to vote no. “I am doing this out of my convictions,” Patterson said.

Council member Leslie E. Johnson (D-Mitchellville), a longtime union member, voted for the pay raise that her husband’s administration had negotiated.

“I am voting to do the correct thing, and I will sleep well at night because of how I will vote,” she said.

Besides Patterson, Turner and council members William A. Campos (D-Hyattsville), Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) and Mary A. Lehman (D-Laurel) voted against the raises. Eric Olson (D-College Park) and Karen R. Toles (D-Suitland) joined Johnson in voting in favor of the raises. Andrea Harrison (D-Springdale) was absent because of a death in her family, but she had said she would have voted in favor.

“It is painful to know that we are voting down this contract, and I am concerned that there will be a lawsuit,” said Toles, who formally worked for the union.

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