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TSEA Defends State Health Insurance Plan

Press release from the Tennessee State Employees Association; February 6, 2015:

Statement by TSEA President Bryan Merritt on the state health insurance plan being used as political theatre during the Insure Tennessee debate

The Tennessee State Employees Association is disappointed by allegations during the Insure Tennessee debate that the state health insurance plan is a taxpayer subsidy.

Our state health insurance is not a subsidy. It’s a benefit of employment that every state employee earns by their service to the state of Tennessee, including our state legislators.

To be competitive in its hiring efforts versus other large business entities, the State of Tennessee offers health insurance to its employees. But that insurance is not free.  In addition to the 20% that state employees pay directly, state employees receive a reduced salary in exchange for the benefit. In effect, state employees pay for all of the insurance they receive one way or the other.

While state legislators may be classified as part-time employees, they are subject to being ‘on call’ to their constituents seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. They earn their right to state insurance every day.

Anyone who says this is a subsidy simply does not understand insurance. Legislators who do not enroll in the state insurance plan typically have access to other insurance options through their private employment or family. Not all legislators have the luxury of that option.

We would hope no legislator feels they must withdraw from the state insurance system because of inaccurate, disingenuous political attacks over this benefit. The debate over Insure Tennessee should be focused on the merits of the proposal.

The state insurance plan provides coverage to over 270,000 state and local government employees and their family members. TSEA has taken no position in the debate over Governor Haslam’s plan to extend Medicare benefits under his Insure Tennessee proposal.

Founded in 1974, TSEA represents the rights and interests of 40,000 state employees in Tennessee and has a rich history of improving the lives of its state employee members. For further information, visit TSEA’s website at www.tseaonline.org.

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Business and Economy Featured News NewsTracker Tax and Budget

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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TSEA: Haslam Administration Unwilling to Budge on State Worker Reforms

Press Release from the Tennessee State Employee Association; Feb. 14, 2012: 

Over the past several weeks, the Tennessee State Employees Association has participated in a series of meetings with high-ranking members of Governor Bill Haslam’s administration to discuss the Governor’s TEAM bill, which is aimed at dismantling the present civil service system. “Unfortunately, the Governor’s people were unwilling to remove or compromise on the provisions most harmful to state employees and to the people of Tennessee, leaving TSEA no choice but to announce our strongest opposition to the bill,” said TSEA Executive Director Robert O’Connell.

The TEAM bill’s features include the elimination of RIF (reduction-in-force) rules that allow bumping and retreating, effectively allowing the administration to get rid of employees they don’t like under the rules of eliminating a “position”. This removes seniority as a prime protection for state employees when layoffs are deemed necessary. The bill also does away with the right of a laid-off employee to be called back to work once improving economic conditions make that possible. Other aspects include the elimination of scoring job applicants on their experience, training, education, and test results and moving to a “pass-fail” system where administrators can hire any applicant who possesses the bare minimum qualifications for the job.  Also removed would be an employee’s right to appeal most suspensions without pay.

Both sides in these discussions have agreed that the present system of annual evaluation of state employees’ performance is broken and ineffective and needs to be overhauled.  Because so much of what the Governor is trying to accomplish depends upon the ability of administrators to compare one employee’s performance with another’s, TSEA believes a new evaluation system needs to be devised and installed, and ought to have produced a year’s worth of evaluations before the rest of the Governor’s proposed changes are considered.

“Although we appreciated very much the administration’s meeting with us and listening to our concerns, in the end they were not willing to bend in the areas of the bill that are most harmful to state employees and the citizens of Tennessee,” said TSEA President Phil Morson. “In scrapping seniority, the new bill would waste the considerable investment the citizens of this state have made in their most experienced employees.  We hope their representatives in the General Assembly will not pass the bill in its present form.”

The first test of the bill will be on Wednesday afternoon before the House State and Local Government General Subcommittee.

TSEA is a nonprofit association existing to provide a strong unified voice with which it advocates the work-related interests of members. The attainment of association objectives will ensure a better life for our members and will attract and retain an effective, efficient state workforce to provide services for all Tennesseans. TSEA was established in 1974. For further information, visit the Web site at www.tseaonline.org.

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TSEA: Haslam’s TEAM Act a Return to ‘Patronage and Political Cronyism’

Press Release from Tennessee State Employees Association; Jan. 23, 2012:

TSEA Has Serious Concerns with Civil Service Bill

The Tennessee State Employees Association has reviewed and analyzed the Haslam administration’s proposed TEAM Act of 2012 and has serious concerns with the bill in its current form.

As written, this bill would dismantle the civil service system, destroying the protections that system provides to the people of Tennessee. TSEA Executive Director Robert O’Connell commented, “Dismantling the civil service system would thrust this state back into a time of Patronage and Political Cronyism when state government jobs were distributed by politicians as rewards for campaign support and other loyal ‘service’.”

Today the qualifications of every applicant for a state job are evaluated, measured, and ranked based on their scores. Conversely, the administration’s “TEAM” bill eliminates this system of objective scoring and allows managers to hire anyone they choose who possesses the minimum qualifications for the job. This new system might be a little faster, but the people of this state deserve employees who are more than “minimally qualified”.

Under the present civil service system, most employees can only be fired for poor performance or bad conduct. Those designated as “executive service”, however, can be fired for any reason, or for no reason, really. The new bill greatly increases the number of employees who can and will be designated executive service, subjecting them to arbitrary termination, once again opening the door to political cronyism.

Under the new bill, employees who are not part of the expanded “executive service” are referred to as “preferred service”. While preferred service employees do retain the right to file a grievance, they will lose the right to any face-to-face hearing until the final step of the grievance process. Under the present system, that final hearing would be held before the Civil Service Commission. The new bill eliminates the Commission and replaces it with a Board of Appeals which will serve the same functions as the Commission it replaces. In the present system, Commission members can only be removed by the governor for cause, after an opportunity for a public hearing. The members of the new Board will all be appointed by the present governor, who can remove any member whenever he pleases. The current process establishes the required independence and impartiality of the Commission, but that independence and impartiality is eliminated in the new “TEAM” bill.

When economic or other conditions make it necessary to lay-off some employees, the present system helps to ensure (through a process called “bumping” and “retreating”) that the most senior employees retain their jobs, invaluable experience is not lost, and our taxpayers’ investment is not wasted. The “TEAM” bill eliminates this seniority factor, draining our state of valuable institutional knowledge.

Governor Haslam’s administration has agreed to a series of meetings with TSEA leadership to allow us to express our specific concerns with the bill on behalf of state employees. His administration has assured us that they are committed to hearing our concerns and seeing what can be incorporated in the bill. This willingness to talk and reason together is becoming a hallmark of TSEA’s relationship with the Governor. We can only hope that it will lead to a bill which will protect the interests of the people of Tennessee and not drag us back into the political patronage and cronyism of a half-century ago.

Until the negotiation process is complete, and TSEA is assured state employees remain protected, we are firmly opposed to the bill.

TSEA is a nonprofit association existing to provide a strong unified voice with which it advocates the work-related interests of members. The attainment of association objectives will ensure a better life for our members and will attract and retain an effective, efficient state workforce to provide services for all Tennesseans. TSEA was established in 1974. For further information, visit the Web site at www.tseaonline.org.

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NewsTracker Tax and Budget

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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Featured News Tax and Budget

Workforce-Retention a Concern in State Gov’t, But Pay Revamp Unlikely Anytime Soon: Haslam

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has been hinting that he’s interested in finding a way to keep quality employees from leaving state government jobs, but that’s unlikely to make it into next year’s budget, he said Thursday.

The governor began signaling last month that he’s interested in finding ways to incentivize good employees after several commissioners complained during a series of budget hearings last month that they struggle to retain quality workers. Meanwhile the Department of Human Resources is looking to overhaul state employee evaluations and about 16 percent of workers will qualify for retirement in the next five years.

“I think it’s incumbent upon us to get ready to do our homework, to be ready for where do we have those looming retirements and what can we do to make certain we hire really good people to take their place,” Haslam told reporters after addressing the Donelson-Hermitage Chamber of Commerce Thursday at the Gaylord Springs Golf Club in Nashville.

“If you talk to our commissioners, that’s one of the constant refrains you’ll hear,” he said.

Haslam has had a lot of discussion within his administration about those issues, including planning ahead for as many as 6,800 workers who are within five years of retirement age to leave state government.

The governor is charged with drafting a roughly $30 billion budget in the next few months. As he crafts a state spending plan, he expects to cut as much as $400 million from the budget to compensate for increased costs in expenses like education, TennCare and pensions.

Over the last four budget periods, the state has shaved almost 10 percent of its workers from the payroll, according to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press.

The newspaper reports that the state had 47,102 full-time positions in the 2007-08 budget year. That number has fallen to an expected 42,856 in the 2012 spending plan that kicked in July 1.

Haslam has said cuts have forced departments to be more creative to find better ways to conduct government business and deliver services. Going into next year, the governor is expected to reveal how reorganizing state agencies with the outcomes of their “top to bottom reviews” will reshuffle workers.

“Our focus is on producing results, and one of the things you have to look at is what is the best way to do that. So I actually think the state services of Tennessee have not fallen off. As a matter of fact, our commitment is to make them better,” he told reporters Monday.

The Tennessee State Employees Association says it has anecdotal evidence that state services are suffering now that fewer workers are on the state payrol, such as social workers complaining that mounting case loads cause delays. However, the group says it has not formally studied whether services have suffered.

“We have forced a very much smaller work force to do the job that it ought to take more people to do reasonably,” said Robert O’Connell, executive director of the TSEA. “You need to take off the heavy burden of people who are doing two or three jobs at any given time.”

Commissioner Rebecca Hunter said her department is light on employees after it was “a little hard on itself” when the state embraced a hiring freeze during the economic recession. She said 22 percent of the department’s positions are vacant, and it’s beginning to take a toll on the agency.

“We do realize continuing with our vacancy rate at this level is not sustainable in the long term, and we’re making strategic decisions now about mission-critical positions we need to fill immediately,” she told the governor during a Nov. 4 budget hearing.

The situation has prompted the agency to find new ways to be efficient with the staff that it has, she said, which has helped streamline sick leave practices and how the state separates from departing employees.

Human Resources also proposed an $11.6 million budget, which is the same as the current year’s spending plan. However, the department is now an “internal service fund agency” which means it bills other departments for services like employee trainings instead of drawing from the state’s general fund. This practice is expected to save Tennessee $1.5 million a year, according to Hunter.

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TSEA: Gov’s Raises a ‘Slap in the Face’

Press Release from the Tennessee State Employees Association; April 7, 2011:

TSEA Shocked By Commissioners’ Pay Increase

The Tennessee State Employees Association learned today that Governor Haslam has increased the minimum pay of commissioners by 11% to $150,000. TSEA President Phil Morson said: “We are shocked to hear this. The remainder of the state employee workforce has gone over 3 years with no salary increase, but the Governor gives his cabinet huge raises as they walk in the door. This is unfair. It is a slap in the face to the every-day state worker who has the same right as those at the top to be valued for their hard work and competence. As we move forward, we hope the Governor and the legislature will take swift action to address this painful inequity.

TSEA is a nonprofit association existing to provide a strong unified voice with which it advocates the work-related interests of its members. The attainment of association objectives will ensure a better life for our members and will attract and retain an effective, efficient state workforce to provide services for all Tennesseans. TSEA was established in 1974. For further information, visit the Web site at www.tseaonline.org.

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News Tax and Budget Transparency and Elections

State Workers Pushing for Pay Hikes

Tennessee state employees are demanding a 7 percent raise in next year’s budget. But with only three weeks before the November election and another tight fiscal year ahead, neither candidate for governor says that kind of across-the-board salary bump is realistic.

At a time when most hopefuls in competitive political races are trying to sell voters on their ability to restrain government spending, the state employees’ association says it will push for a pay increase anyway — and promises to hold lawmakers who balk at their demands accountable in 2012.

“I personally will be shocked if the Legislature does not come up with a pay raise for state employees,” said Robert O’Connell, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association. “It’s not a wild, radical idea. It’s just time.”

State workers have gone three years without a raise while the cost of living has increased by 6.9 percent, according to O’Connell.

Every percentage point increase in pay costs the state about $50 million, according to the Department of Finance and Administration. A pay-hike of the sort the government workers’ union is demanding would run about $350 million.

But just last week, Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration collected proposed cuts of up to 3 percent from each department in order to slash between $45 million and $160 million from the budget should the economy take a nosedive.

“We’re not sitting here with rose-colored glasses on. We see their (revenue) predictions,” O’Connell said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not presently on the road to recovery. We are.”

September revenues came in 6.14 percent, or $977 million, higher than expected, according to the Department of Finance and Administration. The increased tax collections follow two years of consistently lackluster revenues that repeatedly failed to meet expectations.

But with Bredesen leaving office in January, it’ll be up to the next governor and a new band of legislators to pass a budget, and decide whether it makes sense to extend a significant raise to the state’s 43,000 employees.

Republican Bill Haslam, who polling suggests is the clear front-runner in the race for Tennessee governor, is sounding hesitant on the raise issue — at least at the level the union is talking.

“To be frank with you, I don’t see that being realistic in the next year or two,” said the two-term Knoxville mayor.

Haslam believes state employees deserve a raise and said he would try to make that happen. But he’s unwilling to commit to 7 percent.

Same goes for Democratic candidate Mike McWherter. “A 7 percent increase in almost any company — privately-held or public-sector right now — would be very difficult to achieve unless the revenue picture just drastically turns around, and I don’t see that happening,” he said.

Nevertheless, McWherter said giving state employees a little something extra — a smaller raise or maybe a bonus — would be a priority under his administration. And he went out of his way to declare his solidarity with the union during the Knoxville gubernatorial debate last week. The first thing the Jackson beer distributor and son of a former governor said he would do upon assuming the state’s chief-executive job would be to “join the Tennessee State Employees Association.”

“We’re going to lose huge institutional knowledge to the private sector if we do not address their needs. I want to join their association so they know I am one of them,” McWherter told the audience at the University of Tennessee.

In addition to larger paychecks, the association wants the state to split employees’ health care premiums down the middle, which would cost another $54 million, according to the association.

Health costs for state employees have climbed 6 percent to 9 percent a year for the last three years, according the TSEA, and without a raise, workers have had to pay the increases on their own.

But even with the out-of-pocket contributions from state employees, Bredesen was observing that Tennessee taxpayers’ share of government workers’ medical coverage represents “a big pot of money.”

State employees salaries and benefits rung up at an estimated $2.8 billion last budget year, according to the Department of Finance and Administration. The total state budget for fiscal year 2010-11 is $29.8 billion.

In the current economic environment, state employees who don’t get laid off ought to count themselves lucky to have a steady job, said Stacey Campfield, a House Republican from Knoxville running for state Senate. Government employees insisting on raises now is a little impractical, he said.

“They can look for a 7 percent raise next year, but I’m looking for a unicorn and a rainbow that drops golden bars from heaven,” he said. They may deserve a raise, he added, but “I just don’t see that as happening,” even at a lower level.

Randy Walker, Campfield’s Democratic opponent, called it “cowardly” to deny state workers annual cost-of-living adjustments. Lawmakers could dig deeper in the budget to find the money, he maintained.

“Zero is unreasonable,” said Walker. On the other hand, 7 percent in one year might be a little much, he added.

State employees’ average pay was $37,727 in the 2008-09 budget year, the latest year available. Private- and public-sector workers throughout the state averaged $40,242 in 2009, according to the state Labor Department. A 7 percent boost would raise average government-employee compensation to $40,367, or $125 higher than the private-sector average.

Tennessee’s most recently reported statewide unemployment rate was 9.6 percent, according to the Labor Department.

While TSEA’s leadership says it’ll fight hard for raises, they’ve been disappointed before. Earlier this month, Bredesen’s administration sent agency directors a letter saying a wave of bonuses intended to hit their bank accounts this fall just isn’t in the fiscal cards.

The bonuses were tied to the state collecting an extra $50 million in tax revenue above what it projected in the 2009-10 budget year. Instead, revenues fell $39 million short of the state’s estimate. Bredesen subsequently cancelled the bonus, which would have given employees $50 for each year of service with a minimum payment of $150 and a maximum of $1,250.

TSEA officials say they’ve chosen to endorse candidates who generally favor raises for state employees. However, O’Connell said, they’ve gotten no guarantee that those lawmakers who they’ve already endorsed this year would support an increase of 7 percent.

“All we can do is exercise any political clout that we may have in the future,” he said, adding that the association plans to ask members to call the politicians it has endorsed and ask whether they support the proposed raises. “We are not expecting that we are going to fail.”