Unruly, inept and ineffective state workers would face more swift and sure discipline under an overhaul of government personnel rules being pushed by Gov. Jan Brewer.
The long-awaited plan unveiled by the governor this week would gradually make most state workers “at-will employees,” meaning agency administrators would have more power to impose discipline for misbehavior or poor performance. Most state employees are now covered by laws and personnel rules that make imposing discipline costly and time consuming, according to the Goldwater Institute investigation, “Undisciplined Bureaucracy,” published in December 2010.
Brewer’s 275-page proposal is scheduled to be heard by the House Employment and Regulatory Affairs committee today. It is sponsored by Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, a member of the committee.
The Goldwater Institute’s investigation exposed the cumbersome process that must be followed to discipline a government worker in Arizona. Bad behavior ranging from sleeping on duty to sexual harassment typically is not enough to get a government employee fired, the investigation showed. State workers are frequently put on prolonged periods of paid administrative leave, sent home to draw full pay and benefits while disciplinary investigations are conducted.
A month after the Goldwater Institute’s report was published, Brewer announced she would make revamping the state’s personnel rules one of her top priorities. Though Brewer has continued to tout the concept publicly, she released details of her proposal for the first time late Tuesday.
The centerpiece of Brewer’s package is to move most state employees to an at-will personnel system, similar to what is typical in the private sector. Any new workers hired by the state would be at-will employees. Existing workers covered by civil service rules would retain those protections unless they voluntarily accept a change in assignment or promotion, in which case they would go into the at-will system. All state lawyers and information technology workers would become at-will employees, as would supervisors and other upper-level managers.
State police and most Department of Corrections workers would be exempt from the new rules, meaning they could change assignments and stay under existing civil service rules in the governor’s plan.
“This is a debate that reformers must win,” Brewer said in a prepared statement announcing her plan. “Either we provide state supervisors the flexibility they need to manage their workforce, or we accept a personnel system bound up with bureaucratic red tape. Either we institute these reforms, or we continue outdated policies that provide most state workers with protections enjoyed by virtually no one in the private sector.”
Sheri Van Horsen, president of the AFSCME local union that represents state workers, said there is no reason for such a massive overhaul of the state’s personnel rules to be rushed through so quickly, especially after more than a year of waiting. Personnel rules protect state workers from undue political influence by elected officials, Van Horsen said. Many of the problems the governor complains about can be fixed administratively without changing the law, she added. If statutory revisions are needed, they should be studied by lawmakers and there should be an opportunity for others, including state workers, to have a role in shaping the changes, she said.
Instead, the governor’s massive bill is scheduled for a single committee hearing in the House less than two days after it was released, a move that Van Horsen said leaves little opportunity to study the language and weigh potential consequences.
“I just think the bill is reckless,” Van Horsen said. “We should not take away the protections of the majority of state employees who are hired and trained by the taxpayer to serve only the taxpayer, not the person who just happens to be occupying the governor’s chair at that particular point in time. That’s not good.”
Brewer’s proposal has been in the works for more than a year. Though she cited it as a top priority in January 2011, Brewer waited until the waning days of the last legislative session before seeking action on her plan. Even then, specific language was not released.
There was talk of calling a special legislative session in October, and again in January, to pass the personnel reform package. But neither came to fruition. Brewer publicly produced specific language for a bill that lawmakers can act upon for the first time on Tuesday.
The delays are not a sign of resistance among lawmakers, said Rey Torres, spokesman for House Republicans who control the majority of votes.
“Leadership has been supporting this for over a year now,” Torres said. “This bill is very important.”
House Democratic leaders could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Aside from moving workers to an at-will system, Brewer’s plan would give agency directors more flexibility in hiring workers and setting their pay, according to an outline released by the governor’s office. It also would limit the ability of the State Personnel Board to alter disciplinary decisions imposed by agency directors, and require that when layoffs occur they are based on an employee’s performance rather than years of seniority.
Another provision would clamp down on administrative leave, the practice of sending workers home during a disciplinary investigation. Currently there is no restriction on how long an employee can be placed on administrative leave. Brewer’s proposal would require agencies to report weekly to the state Department of Administration if an employee is on paid leave for more than 80 hours. If the leave extends more than 30 working days, approval from the Department of Administration would be required.
The Goldwater Institute’s investigation showed state agencies racked up more than 100,000 hours of administrative leave in a two-year period, often for offenses that resulted in minor discipline. Many workers were put on paid leave for months at a time.
Other major findings of the investigation include:
- Firing an employee can take years because of the complex rules of documentation, progressively more severe punishment for repeated offenses, and procedural hurdles that must be cleared to discipline a state worker. In one case, a state employee spent six years fighting his termination. He was ultimately ordered reinstated with full back pay and benefits by the Arizona Court of Appeals, which found his supervisors cited the wrong section of the personnel rules when he was initially dismissed.
- Blatant misconduct alone is typically not enough to ensure a government worker gets fired. State laws and personnel rules create an extensive review process within an agency before the decision is made to terminate an employee. If a worker is fired, the termination can be appealed to the personnel board, which has the power to modify or overturn any discipline imposed by the agency.
- Government workers are rarely fired for poor performance alone.
About three-fourths of state workers are protected under civil service rules, according to Brewer’s office. Within four years, about 82 percent would be at-will employees, based on the governor’s figures, which exclude state police and corrections workers who will not be affected by the changes. The state has nine personnel systems for various state agencies. Brewer would consolidate them into four systems; one each for all executive branch agencies, the courts, the Legislature and universities.
About 36,000 people work for the state. A third of them will be eligible to retire in the next five years.
As an incentive to move existing workers into the at-will system, Brewer included $53.7 million in her budget proposal for employee pay raises next year. To qualify for a raise, state workers will have to opt into an at-will personnel system.
Van Horsen said that incentive is likely to have few takers.
Brewer’s proposal comes at a volatile time when lawmakers already are clashing with public employee unions. Earlier this month four bills that would curtail the power of public-sector unions were passed by the Senate Government Reform Committee. Brewer warned she did not want those bills to reach her desk before her personnel reform package is passed.
Though Brewer had nothing to do with the union bills, she nonetheless was lumped in for the blame as union officials and some Democrats warned of a recall, sit-ins and disruptive protests similar to those that took place in Wisconsin last year. Van Horsen downplayed those threats in an interview Wednesday, saying she prefers to work with lawmakers to ensure a bad bill does not pass.
Matthew Benson, the governor’s spokesman, said she is prepared for any backlash that might come from the unions. As to the Senate bills, Benson said the governor’s warning was not a signal that she opposes those measures. Rather it was to make clear that they are separate legislative initiatives unrelated to her plan.
“The governor’s concern is that she wants people to understand that personnel reform is her priority,” Benson said. “She doesn’t want that to get caught up and potentially derailed in a larger fight over these union proposals.”
As to threats of a recall and large-scale union protests, Benson added: “The governor believes you do what you think is right regardless of what sort of backlash you think you might encounter. You just have to do what you think is right, and in this instance the governor believes strongly that personnel reform is the right thing to do in this state.”