By Courtney Smith and Brandon Wajbel
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
Employees of the Baltimore County 911 Center on Bosley Avenue in Towson protested outside the County Council headquarters today to voice their opposition to a proposal that would require them to work rotating shifts.
The protest, which was also joined by the City Union of Baltimore, was held just before a council meeting, with about two dozen people marching, picketing and chanting outside the Baltimore County Courthouse.
“We just want answers,” said Erica Stephens, a police dispatcher in Baltimore County. “When we ask questions they have no valid reasons for how rotating shifts will help the county.”
The employees voiced their frustration with what they feel is a lack of transparency with the administration of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, which has proposed making dispatchers work 12-hour shifts that would rotate between day and night rather than the fixed eight-hour shifts that are currently in place.
The protesters said County Administrative Officer Frederick Homan has a “because-we-can” attitude towards enforcing these new rules on the employees. Homan could not be reached for comment.
“The problem is not being able to negotiate with the county, but still receiving threats, and having them impose their power on our jobs,” said Travis Galliher, a Baltimore County Police and Fire dispatcher. “They don’t know what we do, and they don’t care what we do.”
John Ripley, the president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees who spoke on behalf of the employees at Monday’s council meeting, said that about 25 employees have left the dispatch center because they do not want to work the rotating shifts.
“The county has lost over 25 veteran employees that equates to about 238 years of experience,” Ripley said. “This weakens the county’s ability to respond to emergencies, and no can dispute that.”
The county has argued that it needs to impose the rotating shifts to ensure that there are experienced dispatchers on duty at all times of the day. The fixed eight-hour shifts, county officials have said, can lead to the most experienced dispatchers taking prime day-time hours while leaving less experienced dispatchers for night shifts.
But Ripley told the council that there have only been about 10 complaints out of the roughly 750,000 911 calls made to the center each year. He said this statistic is not indicative of any problem with the way the call center is run.
Baltimore County employees were not the only ones present at the meeting tonight. City operators were also in attendance as sign of support.
Antoinette Johnson, an employee of the Baltimore City 911 center and a member of the City Union of Baltimore, told the council it was important for her to come speak because she believes city employees are facing some of the same problems.
“We are here in solidarity and unity,” Johnson said. “As a union we are going to stand together.”
A rotating shift within the call center would mean that an employee would work a shift from the hours of 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. for 13 weeks, then rotate to a 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift.
The sentiment raised by all those who spoke was that the new shift schedule increased mandatory overtime, decreased shift flexibility and made the process of taking time off much harder.
“We are OK with 12-hour shifts,” Stephens said. “We do not want to rotate.”
Baltimore County stopped rotational shifts 33 years ago after studies indicated that rotational shifts are unhealthy, Stephens said.
“Working these shifts are causing workers to become sick, and since we are forced to work overtime we can’t even take off for sick days,” Stephens said. “This is messing up employee’s personal schedules. One dispatcher is battling cancer, and having these rotating shifts will mess up the chemo treatment appointments.”
Councilman Julian E. Jones ended the meeting by thanking the 911 operators that were in attendance.
“I personally appreciate the necessary work you all do for us,” Jones said.