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AFSCME to push for telework changes, essential worker protections

Maryland’s chapter of the nation’s largest public employees’ union will prioritize telework reform, higher education bargaining rights and  essential worker protections in the coming legislative session, the union announced Monday morning.

A bill allowing union workers to collectively bargain with the state university system, rather than individual institutions, has gained increased significance following the struggles workers faced throughout the pandemic, said leaders of the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Currently, university employees bargain with the presidents of their universities, but the ultimate decisions about collective bargaining are made at the university level. This legislation, sponsored by Sen. Benjamin Kramer, D-Montgomery, will take out the middleman, ideally making bargaining more efficient.

Celina Sargusingh, who works at the health center at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that uneven communication with administrators made responding effectively to the coronavirus pandemic incredibly difficult for UMD’s health care employees. She also criticized Frostburg State University for failing to communicate with its employees even as the surrounding Alleghany County community became a virus hotspot in the fall.

“None of the universities were equipped” for the pandemic, she said. “The universities really did not improve at the level we needed to keep our workers safe.”

The bill, which will be AFSCME Maryland’s top priority in the coming legislative session, has been introduced in the legislature twice before, but has never made it to vote. 

The telework bill, which is being sponsored in the House by Delegate Carol Krimm, D-Frederick, would require Maryland counties and municipalities to develop teleworking programs for public employees and maximize the number of employees who can take advantage of them. 

The bill was developed in response to many public employees being required to work from offices throughout the 10 months of the pandemic, despite being capable of working from home.

AFSCME Maryland and Krimm are considering incorporating additional provisions to the bill that would address more specific criticisms that state and municipal employees have expressed regarding telework, according to Lance Kilpatrick, the union’s political and legislative director. 

The bill would create more consistency in telework protocols in hopes of preventing situations where equivalent agencies in different counties follow significantly different rules. Workers who are denied the ability to telework would be allowed to appeal that decision. Finally, the bill would ensure teleworkers had any equipment necessary to complete their work from home.

AFSCME’s third priority bill, the Maryland Essential Workers Protection Bill, is a collaboration with other unions in Maryland and was initially announced in a virtual press conference last month. Sponsored by Del. Dereck E. Davis, D-Prince George’s, and Sen. Malcolm Augustine, D-Prince George’s, the bill will guarantee frontline workers hazard pay, bereavement and sick leave and safe working conditions, among other things, during emergencies.

Small business advocates oppose the bill, worrying that it would place too strain on business owners. 

This legislation will only serve as a roadblock to the recovery of Maryland small businesses in the future should there be a state of emergency like the one they are grappling with now,” Mike O’Halloran, director of the Maryland chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, said in a statement. “The fact is a bill like this adds new costs, establishes liability issues for small business owners, and creates what is sure to be a maze of red tape and new regulations. As we have seen during this current economic crisis, small business owners are doing everything they can to protect their employees, customers and clients. Any future state of emergency would be no different. No one cares more for the safety of their workers than a small business owner.”

In addition to announcing its legislative priorities, AFSCME Maryland leadership also spoke out against Maryland’s vaccine rollout, which they said has left hospital workers in Washington County, currently one of the jurisdictions most heavily impacted by COVID-19 in the state, unvaccinated. They also criticized the state for not laying out concrete plans surrounding vaccinations for employees of public institutions of higher education, many of which will begin their semesters later this month.

Of AFSCME’s over 30,000 members, 3,000 have contracted COVID-19, and six have passed away.

AFSCME Maryland called on Gov. Larry Hogan, with whom the union failed to reach a contract agreement at the end of last year, to increase support to essential workers and provide more clarity regarding when they will be able to take the vaccine during the Monday morning press conference.

“The continued lack of health and safety protocols coupled with the disregard of frontline employees perspective puts us in (a) dangerous situation,” the union said in a press release.

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