Chipping away at state workers' job security

May 18, 2013 

State employees knew they might be in for a rough time with the election of Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. Republicans have never been friendly to protections for ordinary working people, public or private, and indeed, when the governor made his State of the State address he referred to having an intolerance for “seat warmers’ among public employees.

Not surprisingly, many took it personally, as indeed they should have. State employees have gone without decent salary increases or other perks for years, and most work hard, in many cases for less money than they could get for comparable jobs in private business.

But as Republicans in the General Assembly have shown, they love to put up a target and take turns at practice, the most notable example being Sen. Phil Berger, president pro-tem of the upper chamber, who made public school teachers his personal target of choice by proposing to end teacher tenure.

Now, through a bill in the state House, Gov. McCrory would get his wish, or wishes, about state employees.

Grievance changes

Civil service protections against firings and demotions would be curbed in a House bill, with grievance procedures changed for about 90,000 state workers. Instead of having their appeals of firing and demotions heard by an administrative law judge, they’d be going before a “hearing officer” who would be named by political appointees of the governor. Currently, when a case is contested, those administrative law judges in the Office of Administrative Hearings hold hearings that are similar to judicial proceedings, with discovery, submission of evidence, lawyers, etc.

But under proposed changes, the Office of Administrative Hearings would just review a ruling of the hearing officer.

And no one seems clear as to what exactly the proposed law would allow in terms of employees being able to have a lawyer present for the hearing. Neal Alexander, McCrory’s state personnel director, says the hearing officers would be career employees who wouldn’t be influenced by politics. And he says the hearings would be closed to the public.

State employees would be right to be suspicious of these ideas.

Beware reform

Alexander, appointed personnel director by McCrory, supports the legislation and says it’s an attempt to modernize and streamline the grievance process.

Anytime streamlining is involved, it’s unlikely that means that grievances will get more scrutiny. They’ll get less. And while officials say the streamlining also will mean that some employees hired on probation will achieve career status more quickly, the tradeoff of shortcuts in the grievance process isn’t worth it.

Another factor which makes the timing of this “streamlining” suspicious is that it follows a pattern seen in several other states where Republicans have curbed civil service protections for public employees.

The recession and need to downsize bureaucracies are always cited as reasons for the changes, but it’s more likely that politics is in play. And a curious twist in this maneuver is that it would expand the number of employees exempt from the protections of the State Personnel Act to 1,500. The number already was increased by the GOP-run General Assembly from 400 to 1,000. Those individuals won’t be protected from firings because they will essentially be classified as political appointees.

But another way of looking at it is that Gov. McCrory will have many more political appointments at his disposal.

The true test

The best way to measure whether any part of a personnel system is in need of overhaul is to answer this question: How is the current system working?

Julian Mann III, the director of the Office of Administrative Hearings and chief administrative law judge, answers that one affirmatively. He said his office hears 13,000 cases a year. Just 200 of them have to do with personnel issues. And in most of those, he said, the judges try to settle the cases to the satisfaction of those involved before they ever get the stage of a full hearing.

That seems fairly streamlined already.

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