At Understaffed State Agencies, Workers Describe Dangerous Conditions | WYPR

At Understaffed State Agencies, Workers Describe Dangerous Conditions

Oct 29, 2019

Jason Suggs, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local representing employees of the Maryland Department of Labor, describes problems caused by understaffing at the department during a press conference Tuesday in Annapolis.
Credit Rachel Baye

Chronic understaffing at several state agencies is forcing employees to work 80-hour workweeks and endure dangerous work environments, some employees told state lawmakers at a briefing Tuesday.

Jeremy Jeffers, a resident advisor for nearly 12 years at Victor Cullen Center, a juvenile detention facility in Frederick County, told members of the House Appropriations and Senate Budget and Taxation committees that the facility has about 45 percent less staff than it needs. As a result, he and other workers routinely get hurt on the job.

In April of last year, he lost consciousness during a riot.

“Other injuries that I’ve sustained have included a partially amputated finger, at least six concussions — with three of those in the last two years, one in which took me almost six months to heal — torn ligaments and a fractured left ankle from two separate incidents, which I have pain from every day,” he said.

He said he has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and is being treated for depression and anxiety as a result of the repeated injuries.

State hospitals, such as Eastern Shore Hospital Center, where Ikeia Cornish is a direct care assistant, experience similar problems.

“There is no question that the state hospitals are experiencing a staffing crisis right now,” Cornish told lawmakers.

Like other state hospitals, Eastern Shore has been admitting more patients for court-ordered treatment, she said. But without adequate staff, hospital workers lack the training and security they need to manage the new patients.

As a result of the staffing issues, Cornish said one of her co-workers was assaulted last year.

“His head was repeatedly banged into the concrete,” she said. “It has resulted into a traumatic brain injury, forced him into retirement. He is disabled, no longer able to work.”

Being short-staffed also poses risks to the patients at the hospital. Cornish said that within the last 90 days, three patients were attacked by other patients.

State lawmakers also heard about staffing shortages in social services and corrections. A social worker described juggling between 60 and 70 cases at a time. A correctional officer said she and her coworkers are required to work 80 hours a week to keep state prisons operating safely.

“This was a problem during the O’Malley administration and it has only continued now — it’s gotten even worse and ignored during the Hogan administration,” said Patrick Moran, president of the Maryland branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the labor union that represents many of the affected state workers.

Moran said state agencies routinely lose employees to county and city government jobs, which pay more.

The solution, he said, rests with Gov. Larry Hogan, who sets agency budgets.

Budget Secretary David Brinkley acknowledged that vacancies are a problem. As of Sept. 1, an average 11.8% of positions at state agencies were vacant, he said. “Average vacancy rate has continued to increase during the past decade and presents a challenge for specific jobs in certain agencies.”

Brinkley said some of the affected agencies are giving employees pay raises and bonuses in an effort to attract and retain workers.

Agency heads told lawmakers they are working to fill vacancies more quickly and to address the safety and other issues that hurt morale.

Robert Neall, secretary of the Department of Health, highlighted signs of progress at Potomac Center hospital in Hagerstown.

“Since the beginning of the fiscal year, the amount spent on overtime has been reduced by 42%,” Neall said. “Since the beginning of the fiscal year, the number of staff members on leave as a result of patient assaults is down by 81%.”

However, state data show that between January and October of this year, vacancy rates have increased for correctional officers and Juvenile Services resident advisors — the same job in which Jeffers has been hurt so many times.