State workers have 2 weeks to accept pay bump in exchange for job protection - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

State workers have 2 weeks to accept pay bump in exchange for job protection

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Posted: Monday, September 3, 2012 1:38 pm

About 14,000 state employees have two weeks to decide if they're willing to give up some employment protections for cold hard cash.

Sept. 14 is the deadline for these workers, now covered by the state's merit system, to decide if they're willing to become "at will'' employees. That allows them to be disciplined or fired without their supervisors having to go through the same procedures.

Another nearly 6,000 already had the decision made for them: The Legislature directed that certain employees now with merit protections, including attorneys, technology workers and those above certain pay grades will automatically lose their merit protections effective Sept. 29.

But it remains to be seen how many of the 14,000 will go along voluntarily.

The move comes more than a year after Gov. Jan Brewer first asked lawmakers to start phasing out merit protections for state workers. Brewer contends that it is too difficult to fire employees who do not do their jobs.

The final plan, approved earlier this year, says anyone hired after Sept. 29 will automatically be considered an uncovered employee.

But with some exceptions, everyone else working on that date gets to make a choice.

It starts with a carrot: A one-time 5 percent pay boost, at least through June 30. Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said that should get the attention of many workers, as most state employees have not had pay raise since 2008.

It's not guaranteed, though, they will get to keep the higher pay after that: The Legislature did not make the boost permanent, with ongoing funding dependent on whether lawmakers approve additional cash.

Roman Ullman, director of an arm of the Arizona chapter of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Workers, said his organization is urging people to take a pass on what he calls a " bribe.''

"If they take that 5 percent bribe they give up their security,'' he said. "We have seen instances where people have taken a promotion (into an uncovered position), gave up their security and a month later they were fired.''

But Alan Ecker, spokesman for the state Department of Administration, said more than that one-time fiscal bump is at issue.

"Being a covered employee, in my opinion, really limits your opportunity for advancement,'' he said.

"You only have the ability to get pay raises that are authorized by the Legislature,'' Ecker continued. He said that "really limits the incentive to really want to do a great job.''

This, he said, lets supervisors reward superior performance with pay hikes.

Kathy Peckardt, the state's human resources director, said there's no hard sell coming from her agency.

"It's really about choice,'' she said. "And it's up to the individual employee about what they feel is right.''

Peckardt said, though, she believes that people who are good workers will agree to the change. She said that is especially true of those who already have coworkers who are uncovered and see how the system works.

"They have nothing to fear,'' she said.

Ullman, whose union represents about 500 state workers, sees something more sinister in the whole plan: patronage.

"Frankly, you can't really give a job to somebody if there's somebody in it,'' he said. He said Brewer "wants to reward the people who supported her all along.''

And he argued that is true not only in top-level jobs, most of which already are uncovered, but even the lower-level positions in various state agencies.

Then there's the question of favoritism.

As Ecker noted, uncovered workers will not be limited to only the across-the-board pay hikes -- if any -- approved by future legislatures. Instead, agency chiefs will have lump sums to use for personnel and will be free to divide it up how they want.

Peckardt said that does not mean the money will go to those who curry favor with the boss.

She said over the next year or two the state will be implementing what are known as "360 reviews,'' meaning employees will be evaluated not only by those above them but also coworkers. And Peckardt said that should help prevent cronyism.

"I think if you have the right infrastructure in place, you can minimize those type of occurrences,'' she said.

From the other side of the equation, Peckardt said there is training going on to ensure that supervisors understand they cannot discriminate and they cannot retaliate against workers.

And Peckardt said that even uncovered workers will be able to file complaints about unfair practices, even seeking review by the Department of Administration director if they are unsatisfied with the resolution within their own agency.

On a more day-to-day basis, she said, those in charge who may have never been in charge of uncovered employees need to know how to effectively manage them, including setting expectations up front and working with them to correct any performance problems.

No matter how many -- or few -- workers agree to the change in status by Sept. 14, the state's workforce eventually will shift to fully uncovered.

Any voluntary change of assignment automatically strips the employee of merit protections. That includes not only promotions but also lateral transfers or even demotions.

And with the state running a turnover rate of about 14 percent a year, it's only a question of time before there are no covered workers left.

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