ANNAPOLIS, AUG. 16 -- Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer today reversed his controversial plan to fire state employees in sensitive jobs who test positive for drugs, and will instead punish them with a 15-day suspension if the worker agrees to enter drug treatment.

Although workers who test positive a second time will be dismissed, public employee unions hailed the change to a program they had criticized as inhumane.

"It's a major step in the right direction and it shows the governor is listening to our arguments," said William Bolander, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 92, which has 10,000 members in the state work force.

As part of his effort to be more strict with drug users, Schaefer ordered development of a random drug testing program for approximately 15,000 state workers who hold "sensitive" jobs, those in which their actions directly affect the life and health of others.

Included in the classification are correctional officers, state troopers and other employees who carry guns, as well as youth counselors, mechanics and nurses.

The plan was criticized from the start by the unions for its harsh punishment -- immediate dismissal for a first-time offense.

At the time Schaefer agreed the penalties were tough, but said such severe sanctions were needed if the state is serious about controlling drug use.

Last month, however, he agreed to delay the start of the testing until Oct. 1, giving employees with drug problems a period of amnesty to step forward without the fear of sanctions and get help.

Administration officials said the decision to further ease the program is not a sign the governor has changed his mind about punishing drug use seriously or that he is looking to please union officials in advance of this fall's elections.

They said Schaefer simply feels those with drug problems should be given a chance to change.

"While we have to fight this war, we have to remember that we are dealing with people, and we have to retain a level of humanity," said Catherine K. Austin, assistant personnel secretary. Drug addiction "is a disease . . . . We are telling people you have an opportunity to protect your job. What we want you to do is get healthy."

Under the testing program, considered one of the most aggressive in the nation, employees in sensitive jobs can expect to be tested every two years.

The 15-day suspension for a first offense is without pay; Austin said offenders can return to work only after entering treatment and promising to remain drug-free.

She said the cost of treatment programs will be covered by insurance.