Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Maryland's Wisconsin? Or why contracting costs more

In the Washington Post Ezra Klein recently wrote about a new study that shows that at the federal government level, contracting-out of jobs winds up costing more than doing the same work in-house (i.e., using employees rather than contractors).  We're not surprised.

Since 2009, if not a bit before that, employment practices at the PG pound have been worrisome.  The animal control positions are pretty straightforward-looking, at least, on paper.  There are Field Supervisor positions, which are management classifications, and there are several grades of animal control "officers," all of them non-management, non-supervisory jobs, all classified positions, with job descriptions neatly filed and administered, if not necessarily showing a very impressive workforce development vision.  They mostly require graduation from high school, and not much more.

Since the summer of '09, though, the County has claimed that it would be number ONE in the nation.  Most people would assume that to mean not ONLY that the building would be bright and airy though.  Most people would think it meant that it would house animals in clean, sanitary, healthy spaces, where they could interact naturally, be seen to their very best advantage.  You'd think it would mean that the policies would be clear, humane, and even progressive.  You'd want them to be saving the lives of animals, not hauling 'em in and killing 'em.

To collect and enforce against animals interacting with people, you may need a bunch of high school graduates who can take direction without question. 

To care for animals, to promote them for new homes and to provide them with great vet care and socialization and interaction, though, you need different skillsets completely.  You may not need higher formal degrees, but you definitely need some skills that you don't find in just any cashier at 7-11 or for that matter, in someone who likes to ride around the County roads, eating donuts.  So, it's troubling that since 2009, a small group of workers doing work for a PG county agency, have been treated a lot like slaves.

There are no classifications for shelter workers in PG County personnel law.  There aren't provisions to determine what marks a supervisory shelter worker from any other shelter worker.  There is no career path -- you just work, collect your pay if you're lucky, and hope you aren't terminated.  Many of the people who wash kennels, walk and feed dogs and cats, or decide which animals to kill or keep, are apparently working on what are called "personal services contracts" with the Department of Environmental Resources.

Some of these workers -- we can't call them employees, remember, because they have virtually no rights -- worked previously for the group that contracted for "kennel care" with the county.  They went from working for a small, private company, and possibly, having some flexibility in negotiating about their working situations, to working for the County, but as individuals with no real power to counter the bureaucracy of the County purchasing, procurement, HR, and personnel organizations. 

Think about your own work experiences.  If you have ever worked in jobs where you were paid for piecework, or where you were simply a commission-taker, or where there was no "next step" in sight, you may remember how lazy and unmotivated it can make a person feel.  When you know for sure that the best you can hope for is to not get a pink slip, you resort to working and just going through the motions.  That's probably the way most of the workers on contracts at the pound feel.

Now, if this were the situation for the first year in which the County had total control of the pound and its operation, that would be one thing.  However, it's now been over two years.  Surely, at the compensation levels of the PG County 1 percenters, the "managers" in the County Executive Branch, if we were going to see career plans and vision and mission and a real sense of shared goals and drive, you'd have seen that by now.  You would have seen a lot of personal services contract jobs transforming into County employee positions.  You'd see promising people hired, and you'd see them earning leave and other benefits, that as "personal services contractors," they are entirely without.

Not only is the state of things a very accurate reflection of the capabilities of the current holders of official positions of authority.  It's also a really bad situation for the workers.  And it's really bad for the County and its animal population.

The more animals you have in a building, the more quickly disease can spread.  The importance of thorough and careful cleaning increases.  But workers who don't have a future, don't pay a lot of attention to thoroughness or take a lot of care.  PG's pound is notorious among area rescues for being dirty -- this EVEN after the move into the new building! -- and for animals from that pound being sick.  It isn't that PG county pet owners have sicker animals!  No, rather, it's that the sanitation in the pound we paid dearly to build and maintain, is very poor because the workers who clean it are also poor. 

The more eager your animal control is to collect up all animals, the more animals you'll have in a pound facility.  Animal control doesn't find homes or clean or feed those animals, however.  It is the kennel workers who care for the animals.  It's the kennel staff who provide routine health treatments and it's the kennel staff who devise exit routes for the animals that are other than in a barrel.

Why do we pay a "manager" $127K when he does nothing to manage programs and has virtually no staff?  And why couldn't that money be put toward some real purposes in providing meaningful rewards -- health benefits, anyone?  pension contributions? -- for people who work every day in order to find new homes, get animals into rescue and foster care, clean kennels, and feed and care for the animals.

Watch this space for more on the contracting situation.  Last fiscal year, not a single one of the contracts involving the PG pound were reported to the public nor to the County Council.  We're going to be shining a light on where those funds are going and how they're being reviewed and how that's affecting workers.

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