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State Moves Toward Job Performance-based Hiring

The General Assembly is rallying behind Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to overhaul how the state’s employees are hired and fired after months of wrangling over details.

The Senate voted 30-3 in favor of the reforms Thursday following a 74-19 vote in the House the day before.

“Soon we will have the ability to hire, promote and retain the best and brightest, finally giving Tennesseans the government they deserve,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said in a statement.

HB2384 – also called the Tennessee Excellence Accountability and Management Act – would put more emphasis on the job performance of state employees, such as those who work at the DMV or the Department of Children Services. Job performance will be the primary factor in hiring and firing decisions rather than tenure.

Leadership of the Tennessee State Employees Association, the union for state workers, opposed the governor’s plan earlier this year, saying the changes would open up the door to political hiring.

They came to a consensus earlier this month, agreeing to reinsert tenure as a consideration when making employment decisions, although performance would be key. The governor is expected to sign the bill.

“This is going to do worlds of good as far as building confidence within state employees,” said Bob O’Connell, executive director of the TSEA, who added the union didn’t get everything it wanted, but enough to support the plan.

“There will be a stronger focus on their performance when it comes time to decide who to lay off, who gets merit pay, who doesn’t get merit pay. … We are OK that they’re going to redo the performance evaluation system and we’re going to be part of that.”

Here’s a breakdown of what the reforms would do:

  •  All state employees — including those recently disciplined, demoted or suspended — will see a 2.5 percent raise on July 1. Last year, Haslam handed workers a 1.6 percent raise, but only rewarded employees with a maximum of one disciplinary action against them.
  •  The Haslam administration will develop a new employee performance evaluation system over the next year to be used beginning in July 2013. The goal is to better measure employee performance given current employment decisions rely more on merit than tenure.
  •  In the event of a layoff, the first employees to go will be those with low job performance scores. Seniority, disciplinary actions and abilities will then be factored in.
  •  Open state jobs will no longer be filled by seniority-based reshuffling, otherwise known as bumping. Bumping allows one displaced worker to displace another with less seniority, which causes a ripple effect through state government. The legislation will require open jobs be filled based on merit, although the state will guarantee interviews to laid-off state workers.
  •  The state will slowly lower the amount of lead time they give employees when announcing layoffs. State workers will have 90 days’ notice of layoff until Oct. 1, when that time period will drop to 60 days. Beginning Jan. 1, 2013, workers will have 30 days’ notice.
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AG Upholds Policy Limiting State Worker Raises

The head of the state workers’ union said Thursday he’s not likely to pursue any further challenge to a Haslam administration policy excluding problem employees from across-the-board pay raises.

The attorney general upheld the policy in an opinion released Friday. Bob O’Connell, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association, which represents roughly a third of the state’s 46,000 workers, said the opinion concludes the matter.

“In my opinion, that probably means we’re not going to do anything else. There’s nothing further we can do,” O’Connell said, after listing the various channels exhausted by the group, which included meetings with the governor.

Last summer Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration determined that workers who within the past year had been written up at least twice, demoted or suspended would not be eligible for a 1.6 percent raise. The policy affected about 2 percent of the state workforce.

The AG’s office in its opinion said the administration’s inclusion of disciplinary history when considering “work performance” was reasonable, and that the policy does not get crossways with the budget bill or any other state law. The opinion was requested by state Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis.

For O’Connell, that signaled the end of this round.

O’Connell did say, however, that the association may lobby legislators to include language in this year’s budget that ensures any across-the-board pay raise truly applies to all employees.

Haslam has made rewarding state employees based on performance a central plank of his 2012 legislative package, as well as easing the transition to performance-based pay for teachers by eliminating state mandates weighted more on seniority.

The governor’s office said Haslam plans to include a pay increase in this year’s budget but would not say if such a raise would again be withheld from some employees based on their disciplinary history.

At the unveiling of his agenda Tuesday, Haslam said he didn’t think “across-the-board, nominal adjustments, that are given regardless of performance” were the best way to reward employees.

As for the proposed changes to the state’s hiring and employment practices, O’Connell said he’s read the bill – HB 2384 – all the way through, but hasn’t had time to compare it with current civil service laws. O’Connell did express concerns over the governor’s desire to do away with a seniority policy known as “bumping and retreating,” which allows a laid-off worker with the state for several years to take the job of a newer worker with no regard for actual performance on the job.

O’Connell said the policy protects against political patronage.

“I don’t think the governor wants patronage,” he told TNReport. “But the problem is human beings administer this.”

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No Raises for ‘Disciplined’ State Employees

Gov. Bill Haslam shrugged off complaints by the state employees union over his administration’s decision to withhold pay raises from workers who got themselves in trouble on the job during the last year.

The state denied raises to an estimated 2 percent of executive branch state employees — or as many as 850 people — this month after high-ranking commissioners agreed that workers who had been written up at least twice, demoted or suspended should not get a 1.6 percent raise written in this year’s state budget, according to the Tennessee Department of Human Resources.

“Raises are for those employees who performed their jobs well,” Haslam told TNReport after a fundraiser for Republican Rep. Ryan Williams in Cookeville Wednesday evening. “If an employee has been disciplined or had two written reprimands, I’m not certain that qualifies them (as) the type of folks that in a very limited economy we want to give raises to.”

An administration spokesman added that “the administration believes the increase should be provided to state employees that are adequately doing their jobs.”

Gerald McCormick, a top-level House Republican, said there’s little drive within the Legislature’s GOP-led leadership to defend employees who have slipped up.

“I’m not going to take a stand to give raises to someone who, maybe, has had disciplinary write-ups,” said the Chattanooga Republican.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, declined to comment.

The Tennessee State Employees Association isn’t happy about the decision.

Punishing employees twice for getting in trouble nearly constitutes “double jeopardy,” said Bob O’Connell, executive director of the TSEA which represents 15,000 of the 46,000 state employees on the payroll.

Employees who were reprimanded in the last year already paid the consequences, whether it was time off without pay or a demotion paired with a lower salary, O’Connell said.

“It violates every principal of fundamental fairness that we all hold in common, that it’s just not fair either to punish somebody twice for the same offense and also to let them know what the penalty is after the fact,” he said. “This person is good enough to keep working here and that raise is supposed to be enough to lift them up so they can continue to put bread on the table.”

According to the public code, (Section 49, Item 2)

“lt is the legislative intent that the across-the-board  salary increase  shall apply to all state employees unless an employee is denied on the basis of unsatisfactory work performance, which shall be set forth in a statement from the head of the department  or agency detailing the circumstances surrounding the denial, which shall be sent to the affected employee. The person shall have the opportunity to respond either orally or in writing to the head of the department or agency or their designee.”

Approximately 270 people were denied raises in the Department of Corrections when the new budget year kicked in July 1. Thirteen of those workers were ineligible for raises because of poor performance and the rest had recent disciplinary actions on their record, according to the TSEA.

“It feels like what they want to do is spend the least amount of money possible on this raise,” said O’Connell.

In light of the governor rejecting the TSEA’s request he repeal his administration’s decision to omit disciplined employees from pay increases, O’Connell says the union’s next step may be to ask that workers be eligible for a raise after they’ve gone a calendar year without incident.