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Bullying of workers in Md. agencies subject of hearing

Anger boss looking lie a monster yelling at terrified employees, (Vector Cartoon)

Proposed legislation is designed to address the issue of workplace bullying at Md. state agencies. (Vector Cartoon)

ANNAPOLIS — The lead sponsor of a state employee anti-bullying bill said a hearing on the matter won’t go far enough and will not likely lead to an effective resolution.

Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s and co-chair of the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight, said he believes that a meeting of that committee Wednesday will be too reliant on discussions with state agency officials rather than listening to aggrieved employees to determine the scope of alleged bullying of some state workers.

“Whether the problem is perceived or real, (the agencies) are most likely going to tell us that things are great,” Muse said, adding that the approach is “a bit one-sided.”

“We’ll hear a report and we’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s great’ and we’ll ask some questions,” Muse said.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. C. Anthony Muse, D-Prince George’s and co-chair of the Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight, sought to create a task force to look at the issue, which dates back before Gov. Larry Hogan took office, and to define bullying.

Officials from the state Department of Budget and Management are expected to appear before the committee to discuss the issue.

Muse, who previously introduced legislation on the same topic, brought back his bill to create a task force to examine the issue after taking 2015 off to see how Hogan might address the issue.

“This pre-dates the current administration,” Muse said. “I’ve got as many complaints from previous administrations as I do this one.”

Del. Adrienne Jones, D-Baltimore County and co-chair of the joint committee, said she and other lawmakers are hoping to learn more about the issue.

“We’re expecting that (the Department of Budget and Management) will give us a presentation in terms of what is going on in state agencies,” Jones said.

But to move forward, legislators will also have to identify the problem in a basic sense since current Maryland law does not define workplace bullying.

“Employees describe this problem as being distinctly different from actual physical violence or the threat of physical violence through intimidation and as different from what is normally considered harassment,” Terence Cooper, director of policy and legislative affairs for the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said during a March hearing before the Senate Finance Committee. “Rather, they describe a prolonged and persistent manner of unprofessional treatment that results in an atmosphere unconducive to an effective work environment.”

The union represents about 20,000 workers in the state.

Muse said its possible that only 50 percent of the complaints he receives might be legitimate, but he added that hearing employees in an open meeting with whistleblower protections would give legislators a better idea of how prevalent this issue is.

“We do know this is taking place,” Muse said. “I’m getting more complaints by the day. I know something is going on.”

Earlier this year, a number of employees testified before  that same committee that they were targeted for complaining to state equal employment officials or forced into retirement for identifying and complaining about workers who were being paid but not showing up for work.

The practice of creating hostile work environment appears to be focused on the issue of so-called “special appointee” or at-will employees who are not members of the union and have no collective bargaining protections, according to Sue Esty, a lobbyist for American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and others.

One review by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the state’s largest public employee union, found that there are just under 3,100 at-will employees within a dozen state agencies. Nearly one-third of those are in positions within the Maryland State Department of Education.

Esty said governors for years have cited the need for flexibility when arguing for the need to keep the at-will positions.

“It means they want the ability to hire and fire,” Esty said. “How you hire and how you fire is different for these positions. It’s code for hiring who they want and firing who they want to fire.”

The result is fearful employees and a decline in morale, Esty said.

It’s likely that the discussion will include the possibility of reclassifying some positions as merit employees and making them eligible for union representation.

“We would always like to see more people be in the union but, we’ve always been concerned about protections for all workers whether or not they’ve covered by collective bargaining,” Esty said.

Eric Shirk, a spokesman for the Department of Budget and Management, said officials from the agency will update legislators, calling it “informational.”

“There’s no real presentation,” Shirk said, adding that the department has no official numbers on how many bullying complaints have been made or whether there is a problem.

The department opposed Muse’s legislation earlier this year, saying it was not needed.

Shirk said employees already have options if they feel harassed, including taking complaints to managers or to human resources.

“We’re willing to discuss it,” Shirk said of concerns about workplace bullying. “Obviously, if we had a complaint, we’d take action.”