Haslam makes civil service reform priority, to dismay of some

Sunday, February 26, 2012 at 10:05pm
Gov. Bill Haslam (File) 

His critics argue it will return Tennessee to the corrupt era of political cronyism. But Gov. Bill Haslam insists curtailing state workers’ civil service protections is essential to modernize the government and free personnel policy from bureaucratic red tape.

Haslam thinks so much of the importance of civil service reform that he has made the issue one of the centerpieces of his speeches around the state. He points out that all 22 of his commissioners — “coming from diverse backgrounds and having a wide variety of responsibilities” — say it’s “the most critical thing we can do.”

The governor contends the system leads to absurdities in hiring and firing in which the most senior workers — no matter how lazy or incompetent — hold all the trump cards.

“Here is how it works,” he said in his State of the State address in January. “A commissioner makes the management decision that a particular position in Davidson County is no longer needed. Let’s say the employee in that position has 10 years of service. That employee is eligible to ‘bump’ another employee in a similar job, maybe even in Wilson County, who has nine years and 11 months of service, and that bumping chain can go on and on, which is a disservice to our managers and employees. Never once is performance a part of the decision about who keeps their job.

“No one can convince me that this is the best way to manage our employees and serve our customers. Frankly, I believe it is just plain wrong.”

Although it does keep an appeals process for those who feel they’ve been treated unfairly, the governor’s bill essentially lifts civil service protections for 35,000 state employees. It calls for all employees to be judged first on the basis of their performance on the job, but fails to spell out the evaluation system.

The Tennessee State Employees Association, which opposes the bill, has sat down with the Haslam administration to try to negotiate changes, but TSEA officials said the governor has been unwilling to make significant compromises.

“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,” TSEA President Phil Morson said. “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.”

According to the TSEA, the bill lets administration officials fire employees they don’t like under the rules of eliminating a job. In addition, the bill does away with the right of a laid-off employee to be called back to work once the economy improves. Also eliminated is an employee’s right to appeal most suspensions without pay.

The bill also has drawn criticism for ending preferences in hiring for military veterans. It still requires that managers interview any veterans who apply.

Despite the TSEA’s complaints, the governor is refusing to back down, and his allies in the legislature have taken up the cause. To claims that it allows Haslam to fire workers to make way for political cronies, they point out that he has replaced only 15 percent of the state’s 5,500 executive service workers, all of whom are “at will” workers.

“It’s a very important piece of legislation,” House Speaker Beth Harwell said. “We’ve known for a long time, as has the state employees association, that we need reform in the hiring and promotion of state employees. Everyone agrees to that. We’re not going to agree on everything. But I think we’re at the point that both the state employees association and the administration realize that we need a better way to hire the best people and to promote the best people and reward them for their performance. That’s the ultimate goal here. The taxpayers deserve nothing less than that.”

One of the bill’s House sponsors — Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville — said it “improves and reforms the Tennessee civil service statute. It in no way abolishes it.” He contends not all TSEA workers oppose the bill, reading an email he received from one.

“Although I am pleased to have civil service protection, at this point in my career I’m terrified of being affected by the bumping process in the very near future,” the email read. “The stress I have felt since realizing I could be affected is indescribable. I don’t want to see jobs lost by employees but at the same time I cannot afford to lose mine either.”

The TSEA says it can support making seniority secondary to job performance in deciding layoffs. Under this proposal, junior workers could beat out more senior employees but only if they scored higher on performance ratings. The Haslam administration is refusing to go along with that idea, according to the TSEA.

Rep. Kent Williams, R-Elizabethton, is one Republican who’s against Haslam’s bill. He cites his experience as a state worker back in the 1970s. Hired during the Republican Winfield Dunn’s administration, he was fired four years later when Democrat Ray Blanton took office.

“I was in my mid-20s with three children, and I didn’t care who the governor was,” Williams said. “The governor could have been Bozo the clown. I didn’t care. I was just trying to raise a family and put food on the table. Nobody came to my rescue. I finally got my job back after about two months, after I had to kiss every Democrat’s hind end in Carter County.”

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Nashville, said he fears those days will return if Haslam wins his way.

“If we do away with these protections, it’s human nature. I don’t think we’re any better people than Americans were back in the ’20s and ’30s,” Turner told an aide to the governor during one hearing on the bill. “If the opportunity comes along to replace a bunch of Republicans or Democrats, I think my party would do it, and I think your party would do the same thing.”

24 Comments on this post:

By: govskeptic on 2/27/12 at 6:39

If the author expects to get any kind of political or real truth for a story,
it is suggested he find better sources than Representatives Mike
Turner and the living lie of Kent Williams! Even the most liberal of
states are finding it necessary to make these same kinds of changes!

By: skeptic1 on 2/27/12 at 7:45

I would laugh at the absurdity of this if I hadn't dealt with the cronyism and nepotism issues in every job I've had throughout the past 30 years.

By: Ask01 on 2/27/12 at 8:22

This is a quandry.

On the one hand, we have a system where, it appears the incompetent are protected by seniority and an inefficient system unable to weed them out. On the other hand, Governor Haslam seems to want to change all that so people can be hired into positions on the whim of whomever controls hiring. It seems this would open the system to the hiring of friends or those owed favors and the doctoring performance records to justify retaining them.

One system is better than the other how?

Why don't we just fix the present system so performance evaluations are more transparent and hopefully the incompetent can be removed easier?

I must say, though, the idea of civil servants at all levels being subject to the same "right to fire," I mean "right to work" principle as the common worker appeals to my sense of fair play.

By: Moonglow1 on 2/27/12 at 8:24

Moonglow1: I've got news for Kent Williams. The current governor is Bozo The Clown. Bozo does not care about the good of TN. His allegiance is to the ALEC and to the extremist elements of what is now "mainstream republican. ". Haslam (aka Bozo) gave raises to his Commissioners ranging from 15-45 percent. This is your taxpayer money folks. Why should they get raises when Haslam is eliminating state government. The best thing we can do for the taxpayers of TN is to eliminate Bozo and vote him out of office. He is a job killer, freedom restrictor, and agent of ALEC.

By: Ask01 on 2/27/12 at 8:24

One more item.

Could we in any way make Governor Haslam and our elected legislators subject to being more easily fired for incompetence?

I could really support a proposal such as that.

By: Rocket99 on 2/27/12 at 8:25

Yes, there does need to be changes to the personnel system in the executive branch of State government. Is what Haslam is pushing the best way? Most likely not.

Contrary to what some people think, all of government can not be run like Pilot Oil. With the "Head of the company" (governor) up for replacement every 4 years, there are a lot of political favors which need to be taken care of.

Personally, I think he needs to look directly at the Department of Human Resources. They are the cause of most of the problems and roadblocks. They have way more control than they should.

Regardless of what the Governor says, politics will play a part in the hiring and firing of a lot of the jobs. That's why civil service was put into place in the beginning.

By: TharonChandler on 2/27/12 at 8:43

: TharonChandler on 2/27/12 at 8:36

Please allow me to offer a Sincere word of Thanks to Representative Marsha Blackburn, of Tennessee; in regard to her recent activities in 'canvassing' the citizens of Lawrenceburg, TN. Allow me to say that I am shocked that Lawrence County is suddenly now listed to be within the 'Seventh Congressional district', of TN.

By: TharonChandler on 2/27/12 at 8:47

'Civil Service' ? Interesting.
Previously i would go into tha state building and take those 'tests', just for fun and a hope of having a career. Of course i passed the tests with a high-score; missing just the secret questions answerable only via insider information. That was before; before i moved to Asia, again.

By: Moonglow1 on 2/27/12 at 8:51

Moonglow1: I also support firing Haslam and team for incompetence. I wish TN would get national attention like Scott Walker did. Haslam has curtailed freedoms among many other things under the new buzzword-job creation.

Haslam destroys freedom. Haslam destroys jobs. Haslam works for ALEC. Haslam does NOT work for the people of TN.

By: dva56 on 2/27/12 at 8:58

I have to wonder if the State employee who wrote "at this point in my career I’m terrified of being affected by the bumping process in the very near future,” realizes that if this bill is passed being bumped won't be the issue, being fired with little or no recourse will be the issue.

By: ancienthighway on 2/27/12 at 9:09

There is a system in place to fire incompetent civil service workers already. It requires the manager to document poor performance. These shortcoming need to be discussed with the employee along with a corrective action plan, then a follow up meeting after time has been allowed to make the corrections. With enough of this paper trail, promotions can be denied and employees terminated.
The evaluation system is most likely broken, also. Once a year the manager "rates" the employee's performance. If it's anything like the system used by the Army and Federal Civil Service employees 20 years ago, There's a numeric ranking from excellent to poor along with a narrative. The system is such that any thing less than perfect excellent ratings will kill any chance of the employee ever getting merit raises and promotions.
So the manager has two options for getting rid of incompetent employees. Document for termination, a long drawn out process and often times challenged by the employee, or promote him or her out of the section, much quicker to do and without challenge.

Rather than fixing the existing system, making it easier to terminate poor performers and ensuring the evaluation system is a true measure of the employee, Haslam wants to replace it with the corrupt system that it had replaced. I wonder how much this will cost the state in law suits and court costs?

By: Ask01 on 2/27/12 at 9:38

Ancienthighway, I too have recollections of the winding path to terminate or discharge incompetent or inefficient people.

The Air Force is no different from the Army on these points, and I believe in some cases may actually make the process more difficult. I should specify, I suppose, I am speaking from experience 20 years out of date.

Certain circumstances, the 'big' ones, were fairly automatic, although extreme care was undertaken to ensure, even in the most straight forward instances, every 't' was crossed and every 'i' dotted. Any small mistake could allow a legal advocate to dismantle a case, forcing building a new case file.

Plain non criminal incompetence, negligence, and inefficiency took a mountain of documentation to even initiate discharge proceedings. The higher the rank, the more difficult the process. Often, unless the offending party had incurred the wrath of a superior, rather than expend the resources, a nice safe position was found to stash the person until the normal reassignment process rendered them someone elses problem.

All the protections may seem pointless, but where put in place to safeguard a warrantless vendetta being carried out against an innocent party. To that end, they serve a worthwhile purpose. The drawback is the impediment to ridding the system of those truly deserving.

The answer to the question of costs is probably more staggering than we know or care to contemplate. For that reason, I wonder how far this will proceed once the accountants present a forecasted cost analysis?

By: WickedTribe on 2/27/12 at 10:59

I agree whole-heartedly with Haslam on this issue, but as a former state employee it has affected me directly.

By: pswindle on 2/27/12 at 11:28

When the Governor finishes his signing all of the bills that takes away tour rights, you will slowly see the work force walk away. In time, the state will be begging for teachers and other service people employed by the state. He wants TN to be a rich state and a poor state with the majority in the poor. I just do not understand this kind of thinking. I wish the people of TN had a backbone like in WI.

By: localboy on 2/27/12 at 12:37

TSEA does come off as toothless.

By: jelkins on 2/27/12 at 3:09

The one poster who pointed his/her finger at DHS is absolutely correct! A supervisor in my office has had to wait for over 6 months just to get a reply on his request to write up a worker under him. In those six months, she's made no steps toward correcting her performance, in fact, she accrued more write-ups by failing to do her job over and over again. But, how do you get rid of folks when it's takes almost a year for DHS to approve your ONE write-up so you can submit the other five? It's ludicrous!
The system definitely needs to be fixed. But, I certainly don't trust that someone is going to see me as an asset to this great state after 12 years of loyal employment if they have a niece/nephew/son/daughter/best friend's son or daughter/next door neighbor's etc. etc... straight out of college who needs a job. If there's no recourse for those of us who have worked hard and paid our dues, then I do believe it's going to revert back to the good old boy system. They need to restructure the register system and they need to have shorter time frames for answering staff's grievances and the level hearings when someone is moved out of their last position. A good friend of mine had to endure 2 years of level 5 hearings on her movement out of her position and she ended up winning up b/c the person who testified about her alleged "failing to do her job" was found to be a worthless witness and couldn't produce any evidence that my friend had NOT done her job, b/c she had. It shouldn't take 2 years to settle these types of things.

By: Bellecat on 2/28/12 at 10:23

Vote for a republican--this is what you get. It is incredible, incredible, incredible that working people go every election and vote against themselves.

By: pswindle on 2/28/12 at 10:24

By the end of Haslam term, we will have to bring back Gov, Bredesen to make things right again. This present governor is out for himself and his companies. TN wake up.

By: marbyn on 2/28/12 at 2:17

State government is already run on the whose your buddy system. Board members are told, by people up on the hill, who they will hire for directors. Even if the applicant is incapable of performing the duties of the job. Directors and supervisors will gang up on an employee they want to get rid of and resort to any means possible to achieve that end. Even to the point of not giving the doomed, the essential tools necessary to sucessfully reach the minimum production requirements. Then, the unwanted employee receives awful performance evaluations and write ups that eventually gets them out the door. When civil service is gone, they can just be fired and all the railroading won't be necessary. What state employees need is a good union!

By: WickedTribe on 2/29/12 at 11:01

It's almost impossible for me to believe that this many people posting are against this reform. Do you think it's a good thing that our state government is filled with incompetent and lazy fools taking advantage of the tenure system? It's no wonder our government is so screwed up.

And I'm a hard-core Democrat who has disagreed with Haslam on almost everything else he's done or signed so far, but I'm behind him 100% on this. Jobs should be filled and retained based on competence and performance, not tenure.

By: san r on 2/29/12 at 11:41

what i thought i saw i don't think i saw. i want to go back and double-check to make sure that i did not see the words -bring back bredesen-but i must have seen those words somewhere, i know my mind is stressed but i don't believe i could have imagined the words out of the clear blue.
all these clowns need to be connected with ringling bros. or barnum and bailey. but you vote them in just to have someone in office that will disallow your true colors to bleed through like a magic marker on toilet tissue.

By: BigPapa on 2/29/12 at 2:55

The fact that anyone here disagrees that job performance shouldn't top simple seniority shows how blind you are. That is purely common sense. If the guy purposing it had a D in front of his name you'd applaud him for his efforts to make the state run more effectively.

Nobody is saying you lose all civil service rights, just that the first thing to consider is performance, not simply time served.

I think there should be a greater degree of protections for state workers because there is no check on government the way there is on private business (if all you do is hire your friends in private business, you go out of business.)

By: BigPapa on 2/29/12 at 3:05

To clarify, I think state workers do need more protections than most in the private sector simply because there is no punishment for a state, a department or even if a unit is being poorly run.

By: yucchhii on 3/2/12 at 10:58

yucchhii I remember having heard some people talk, saying that if you work for the government (Local, state or federal) that you would have JOB SECURITY.......LMAO!!! NO SUCH BIRD!!! The politicians screw their own just as well as anyone else!!! The old saying applies...There is NO honor among THEIVES!!!!