By Elliott Davis, Capital News Service

State union employees told lawmakers on Oct. 29 they are concerned that staff shortages — of about 2,600, according to a 2018 study — are causing safety issues, including some injuries, for employees at certain agencies. 

Maryland lawmakers, state officials and union members gathered in Annapolis to address the shortage during a joint hearing before the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee and the House Appropriations Committee.

Hogan Administration officials said during the hearing that they are aware of the safety concerns and are working to address them, along with the shortage.

Delegate Shelly Hettleman, D-Baltimore County, speaks during a news conference with members of Maryland’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union about staffing shortages at state agencies on Oct. 29, 2019. (Capital News Service photo by Elliott Davis.)

Jason Kramer, policy analyst with Legislative Services, said during the hearing that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services alone had a need for more than 1,000 employees; while agencies like the Department of Juvenile Services and Department of Health were short more than 200 positions each, according to the study.

Delegate Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) noted during the hearing that recent safety incidents “triggered” the meeting Tuesday morning, which also included testimony from members of Maryland’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — a public employee trade union. The members, donning green union shirts, filled the seats in the hearing room. 

In a news conference held shortly before the hearing, Patrick Moran, president of the union, spoke of what he described as “systematic underfunding and delays” in filling vacancies. He said the union is demanding “immediate action,” but also noted that the members present in Annapolis had “no confidence” in Gov. Larry Hogan as an employer.

Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, said in a written statement that once the union, “agrees to the ground rules that require them to bargain in good faith — rules that other unions have agreed to year after year — our administration is ready and willing to move forward with negotiations.”

Delegate Shelly Hettleman (D-Baltimore County) attended the news conference and said that state employees are “underpaid and overworked,” and the staffing shortages are “putting people in danger.”

Jeremy Jeffers, a resident adviser with the Department of Juvenile Services, testified during the hearing and said he has personally dealt with the “dangers” of understaffing, noting that he has been assaulted “multiple times,” suffered six concussions and even lost part of his finger during an incident.

“I would challenge anyone to come and spend a shift,” Jeffers said.

Ikeia Cornish, a direct care assistant at Eastern Shore Hospital Center, also testified and said one of her coworkers was “blindsided” and beaten by one of the patients. She referred to staffing shortages as a “crisis,” which leads to “more staff and patient injuries” and an “unsecure environment” 

Representatives from the Hogan Administration also testified during the hearing and addressed what is being done to alleviate the staffing problem. David Brinkley, secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, said the administration takes the staffing shortage issue “very seriously” and is focused on “hard-to-fill” positions like correctional officers. 

Nick Pepersack, Brinkley’s deputy chief of staff, later confirmed to Capital News Service that those employees received a nearly 10 percent salary increase between January and July of this year. 

Total salary enhancements in the last and current fiscal years, Pepersack said, amounted to approximately $467 million for employees statewide. 

Robert Neall, secretary of the Department of Health, said there is now an “increase in emphasis” on reporting all incidents at state hospitals and he looks “forward to reporting more progress” in January.

Delegate Kirill Reznik (D-Montgomery) addressed Neall during the hearing and said while he has “no doubt” that the secretary is trying, “we have been here before.” 

“Ever year we hear, ‘these are all the things we are doing’ … and every year, we come back here,” Reznik said.

Pressed by Reznik on where the department will be in terms of vacancies next year, Neall repeated that he expects “significant” progress, but could not answer the question “with specificity.”

Sen. Andrew Serafini (R-Washington) told Capital News Service after the hearing that with regard to the safety incidents, “we have a more violent community in general.”

“It’s not that we don’t care” about state employees, Serafini said, adding that the characterization to the contrary is “problematic.”