Maryland public employees beat back the cold

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In light of national attention this month on Baltimore students trying to get their schoolwork done in freezing classrooms, it escaped almost everyone's notice that state workers in Baltimore also were shivering at their desks.

Members of the Maryland Professional Employees Council endured temperatures in the 50s and 60s—with one report as low as 47 degrees—in their office building on Eutaw Street during late December and early January. Overcome by a frigid cold front that blasted up the East Coast, the building's hot water heating system couldn't keep up with demand.

Cold Maryland public employees on the job

As a result, dozens of MPEC members who work for the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation contended with temperatures around 60 degrees for much of the cold snap, and were sent home only once, on Jan. 3, when a hot water pipe burst. Beyond those three hours, employees could escape the cold only if they took personal or annual leave.

"Our work environments should be safe and healthy," MPEC President Jerry Smith says. "It's difficult to serve the citizens of Maryland when you're unable to work at your desk without a blanket, coat and gloves."

Although temperatures reached as high as 77 degrees in some parts of the DLLR building over the past few weeks, employees and their laptops in frigid corners of the building were not moved to warmer offices.

Individual air control units in the building are being replaced gradually, one by one, over several years. "They haven't done this fast enough, in my opinion," says Smith, "and they're looking at it as a budget issue instead of as the health and safety issue that it is."

Smith points to several steps MPEC is taking to help rectify persistent problems with indoor air quality. The union is circulating a petition among members demanding that, in keeping with building code regulations, when the internal temperature falls below 65 degrees, the agency will relocate staff to warm areas; permit teleworking; provide administrative leave until problems are fixed; or close the building. MPEC also has distributed thermometers so employees can track temperatures at their workstations.

Most important, the union's tentative agreement, which if ratified will take effect in early March, establishes a new labor-management committee to set standards for indoor air quality and create processes for solving problems.

[Annette Licitra/Maryland Professional Employees Council photo]