ANNAPOLIS, JULY 19 -- Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer today gave state employees an extra seven weeks to confess their drug habits and get help before facing dismissal under a new random testing program.

Schaefer's decision to delay the testing until Oct. 1 -- and to offer affected employees assistance if they step forward in the meantime -- follows complaints by state employee unions that the governor was being too harsh in his campaign to punish drug users.

Following announcement of the delay, union representatives said they appreciated the extra time for employees with drug problems to seek help, but said their underlying complaints with the program still have not been addressed.

Along with the delay, Schaefer announced formation of a management-labor panel to oversee the testing program, and union officials said they hoped to use that forum to continue arguing that immediate dismissal for a first-time offender is too stiff a penalty.

"I am bittersweet on this. I welcome the delay . . . but delay is not going to solve the problem," said Lance Cornine, executive director of the 21,000-member Maryland Classified Employees Association. "All we are looking for is to put controls in the program that are fair to the state and fair to the individual." The classified employees association and other state employee unions are considering a legal challenge to the drug tests.

Under the program, originally due to begin as early as Aug. 10, 13,000 to 16,000 state employees would be subject to random drug testing, and fired on the spot for a positive result. The affected workers are those considered to hold "sensitive positions" in which job performance could affect the life or safety of another. The state plans to perform about 9,800 tests during the next year at a cost of $400,000.

Schaefer ordered the tests as part of his effort this year to crack down on drug users. Legislation passed by the General Assembly this spring, for example, threatens some state-licensed professionals with loss of their work credentials if they are convicted of using drugs. Along with testing the 70,000-member work force he oversees, Schaefer is encouraging private employees to develop their own "drug-free workplace" guidelines.