State Human Resources Department Mulls Cuts to Worker Mediation Process

The Tennessee Department of Human Resources proposed cutting nearly $1 million from its budget Tuesday at Gov. Bill Haslam’s preliminary budget hearings for the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Earlier this fall Haslam asked state agencies to prepare budgets reflecting a 7 percent decrease from the previous year.

Human Resources has proposed a budget of about $11.5 million. The cuts, totaling $867,200, would come from reducing benefits, operational expenditures, funding for a certification initiative and expenditures for administrative judges, as well as eliminating funding for the state mediation program.

The operational cost reduction of $240,000 includes cuts to funding for printing, communications, state purchases and travel.

The proposed cut of $132,000 from travel expenses would have the biggest negative impact on the agency of the administrative cuts because it would reduce their ability to provide training and attend job fairs around the state, said Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter.

Hunter also hedged on cutting the $41,000 used to fund the department’s mediation program, which she said would “remove that alternative tool for employees to resolve workplace issues.”

Hunter said the department’s mediation program was doing well, and because they were getting requests for mediation from across the state, DHR had trained an additional 20 state employees in how to properly mediate employment disputes.

Since the passage of the Tennessee Excellence Accountability and Management Act — the state’s 2012 civil service reform legislation — there has been an increase in employee appeals, but a majority of the state agency decisions are being upheld, Hunter said. The department has also increased the size of the Appeals Board to accommodate the increase, she added.

While the state doesn’t use its administrative law judges as much since the TEAM Act, Hunter added that cutting those expenditures could negatively impact the appeal process.

Over the past year 1,455 state employees have been terminated, said DHR Public Information Officer Ashley Fuqua via email.

Currently, about 16,000 state employees, or close to 40 percent, have accrued enough retirement benefits to where they could retire now, Hunter said. However, only 8.5 percent of  all employees are at or above the 30 years or service mark.

Hunter mentioned during the hearing that any statewide reduction in employees affects funding for her department — each position cut means a loss to Human Resources of $22.45 a month. The department’s service rate structure has not been updated since 2011, Hunter added.

DHR didn’t request an increase in funding for the upcoming fiscal year, and none of the department’s 144 positions were cut in this proposed budget.