Arizona State Workers Can Get A Pay Hike, If They Give Up Protections

Arizona civil service workers unionsSome say it's a devil's bargain. Arizona government employees, who have suffered recent pay cuts, could get a 5 percent raise. All they have to do is give up many of their civil service protections, reports Stateline. Gov. Jan Brewer's "personnel reform" proposal, if it becomes law, would strip away much of the job security of all new hires, the newly promoted, attorneys, IT workers, and anyone who wants a 5 percent pay hike.

Arizona is one of many states trying to peel back these protections in order to create greater flexibility when it comes to hiring, promoting and firing. State workers in Arizona, as in most of the country, have greater job security than their private sector peers. The vast majority of American private sector workers are "at-will," which means their supervisors can fire them whenever and for whatever reason they want.

But since the early 20th century, this hasn't been true for most state government workers. With each new administration, civil servants were subjected to a "spoils system," in which they were frequently hired and fired for their politics. To end the cronyism, states introduced merit systems, in which employees could only be hired and promoted on the basis of their qualifications for the job, and could also appeal dismissals and disciplinary action.

But many state officials claim that these merit systems are now antiquated; the regulations offer no incentive for hard work, they say, and make it difficult to fire poor performing employees. Georgia eliminated the merit status of its state workers in 1996 for one modeled on the private-sector -- rewarding excellence. Indiana did the same last year. Utah has been considering similar reforms for a while, and the governors of Colorado and Tennessee are pushing for change.

Under Brewer's proposal in Arizona (see a two page summary here), agencies would have to base promotion decisions exclusively on performance, and not seniority. The state personnel board, where employees go to appeal their dismissals or penalties, would no longer be able to do anything other than accept the decision, or reject it if there's no cause. Employees would no longer be able to appeal a decision to a superior court on the grounds that it was arbitrary or capricious.

Law enforcement or probation personnel would not receive overtime, unless federally mandated, and agency directors would have no term limits. Those agency directors would "serve at the pleasure of the governor."

"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," Brewer said in a statement Tuesday. "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."

The reforms are all the more urgent, she argued, because one third of state employees are eligible for retirement in the next five years. Government therefore needs to dismantle some of its bureaucracy, and defer less to seniority, in order to attract and retain young talent.

Critics of the reforms argue that job security is one of the public sector's greatest draws. Others worry that the changes would allow partisanship to sneak back into the hiring, firing and promotion decisions of the state government, and that the 5 percent wage hike incentive is essentially a bribe. There was a House of Representatives special committee meeting on Thursday to discuss Brewer's proposal.

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