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.”