PHOENIX - State lawmakers gave the first approval late Thursday to a measure stripping some state workers of their protections against being fired for bad reasons or for no reason. It also seeks to entice others to give up merit protections.
The 275-page bill, approved by the House Committee on Employment and Regulatory Affairs on a 6-3 party-line vote, would have an immediate impact only on some current employees already covered under merit-system rules, including supervisors and workers at upper pay levels. Sworn police officers would be exempt.
But beginning Sept. 29, anyone hired by the state at any level, other than police officers, would be an "at-will" employee, with no rights to file grievances over discipline or employment termination.
The remainder - about 75 percent of the approximately 36,000 state employees - could choose to retain their protections. But the plan crafted by Gov. Jan Brewer is designed to make that a bad deal.
Most immediately, Brewer's budget proposes a 5 percent pay hike for state workers. "Covered" employees would get that raise only if they agreed to forfeit their merit system rights.
Scott Smith, a deputy chief of staff for Brewer, conceded that HB 2571 has no funding for such pay raises, and that it's possible lawmakers won't approve a pay hike.
However, Smith said the plan has other incentives to encourage workers to give up protections. Those include the ability to be financially rewarded by a supervisor for a job well done; current personnel rules and pay scales make it difficult to have different salaries for two workers with the same job description.
Rep. Lynne Pancrazi, D-Yuma, said her concern with the bill, which now goes to the full House, is on the other side of the equation. She said the changes would give supervisors free rein to promote those who curry favor, and to fire those they simply dislike.
Smith said the system has "guiding principles" that protect employees against coercion and partisan politics.
Pancrazi was not convinced principles will be enough to protect workers. She pressed Smith on how that would be policed.
He responded that there already are several state agencies whose employees are not within the personnel rules, including Game and Fish, Tourism and the Government Information Technology Agency.
"And we have not witnessed or experienced any of the type of activities that are being expressed with regards to political patronage or undue pressure," Smith said.
He said the plan would cut bureaucracy and red tape and hold managers and employees more accountable.
Bill provisions would allow workers to continue to seek review if they believe they are victims of discrimination or harassment.
Smith told lawmakers it can be demoralizing to good workers when the state personnel board overturns a legitimate decision to fire a poorly performing employee and that person is reinstated.
Rep. Daniel Patterson, D-Tucson, countered, "I think what's demoralizing is putting all employees at risk of being axed with no due process."
Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, said he does not foresee problems.
"This is what takes place every day in the private sector," he said.
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There are about 36,000 workers within the state's executive branch (other than peace officers and corrections officers who are not affected), about 75 percent of whom are now "covered" under the personnel system. The measure would:
Convert certain employees on Sept. 29 to at-will status:
• New hires
• Employees working as attorneys.
• Employees in information technology positions.
• Those at Grade 19 and higher.
• Those who accept a promotion.
• Those who agree to become uncovered. (Governor's proposed budget offers 5 percent pay hike for those who agree to become uncovered as well as for those who already are uncovered.)
The proposal would also:
• Allow suspensions to be appealed only if they are for more than 80 hours, twice as long as current threshold.
• Require any reduction in force to be based on performance and not seniority.
• With some exceptions, eliminate the requirement that employees who are not covered by federal law get one hour of time off for each hour worked over 40 in a week.
• Require employees injured on the job to seek care from within a medical network established by the Department of Administration.
• Preserve rights of workers to file complaints of discrimination or harassment and preserve current "whistleblower" laws giving protections to workers who report illegal activity.
• Eliminate fixed terms for any state agency director except at the Department of Public Safety.
• Consolidate nine separate personnel systems within the executive branch.
Source: Governor's Office