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Layoff setback reminds Jindal to push for pay reform

Earlier this year, Gov. Bobby Jindal swung for the fences with civil service reform. He missed, lost his taste for it in the immediate future, and took the easy route out, but now it has come back to haunt him, at least temporarily – giving him even more incentive to return to finish the job.

For classified employees of the state, in a reduction-in-force situation, any plan must be approved by the State Civil Service Commission, comprised of six gubernatorial appointees (from selections made by state private university presidents) of fixed terms and one elected representative. For his own Division of Administration, Jindal had permitted forwarding a layoff plan (one of several) compelled by the state’s necessity of meeting a tremendous projected budget deficit, as his office is one of the few that does not have statutory or constitutional protection from reductions during the budget year. The CSC rejected part of it.

The rationale given was in the plan “meets requirements” employees would be laid off as the sole criterion. Employees are rated by their supervisors into any of five categories, where the bottom two are considered unsatisfactory and continued performance at those levels can lead to discharge, and the highest three are deemed at least adequate performance. “Meets requirements” is the lowest of these three. Rule 17.15 of the Civil Service Rules states that in a layoff situation people in the two lowest categories are first out the door, but after that they “shall be laid off on the basis of the least years of service as determined by adjusted service date.” The presumed sin of the Jindal Administration was to try to lay off the middle category individuals of greater service credit before those rated higher. Only a year-and-a-half prior, changed due to reforms, seniority had held a near-absolute privileged position for any layoff plan.

Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater lamented the development, noting that differentiations among the highest categories of performers ought to mean something for both pay and layoff matters. One commissioner said that wouldn’t be a good idea because of the varied way in which supervisors may rate individuals and in how jobs differ.

Note the lack of logic in that assertion. If those kinds of issues cloud the validity in distinguishing among the three highest levels, would they also not invalidate distinctions between them and the lowest two categories, and between the two lowest categories? Yet the CSC traditionally has felt this way about the categories because they’ve been a joke for decades.

This is because of the ridiculously skewed distribution of ratings, where annually not even one percent of employees rated fall into the lowest categories, and the second-highest category (“exceeds requirements”) is the modal position where about half of employees end up. This clearly is unrealistic to think the state has cornered the market on fabulous employees and points to supervisors padding performance reviews because the prevailing practice for decades has been to give annual “merit” pay raises of the same size (four percent) to anybody in the top three categories regardless in which of those three categories they scored. That essentially rendered them meaningless.

The Jindal Administration correctly recognized this had evolved into a kind of cost-of-living increase in practical terms and wanted to put an end to this by giving agencies greater autonomy in giving raises differentiated by scoring without any guaranteed minimum raises. Twice in the last year it tried to steer the Department of State Civil Service (which recommends actions on state personnel to the CSC) into creating a plan to do so, and twice the DSCS came up short. Jindal then abandoned the effort. Instead, for two years now, he simply denied in the budget money for any of these so-called merit raises.

Forcing such a plan through (not only by turning off the money for raises but also by threatening the CSC appointive members with non-reappointment) would have helped even out the skew as agencies would see value in distinguishing among employees, so a lack of will on the Administration’s part bears some blame for failure to do so. But what would have done more would have been for the CSC to follow through on a pledge made a year ago to improve training of supervisors in their evaluation capacity to forestall the possibility of invalid reviews and that probably would correct for the skewing. By the commissioner’s remark made above, clearly it did not keep its commitment. Together, these initiatives would have given much more meaning to scoring in different categories and improve Rainwater’s argument that, among adequate performers, they should mean something and be employed in reduction-in-force situations.

Rainwater has said he would like the CSC to revisit that layoff rule. However, if Jindal was serious about correcting for that and the disconnection between pay and performance, he would revive his efforts to remake totally the system, being insistent this time that his preferred plan go through and something be done about the skewed distribution. The terms of three members of the CSC end tomorrow; Jindal should tell them in no uncertain terms that he will not reappoint them if by the March meeting the DSCS director (their appointee) does not forward his plan to them and they approve it. If they balk, if he acts expeditiously he can get replacements that agree with him in place in time to enact such a plan for the next fiscal year.

It may be easiest to just keep withholding money for raises until the system forces itself to reform under existing rules, but it would happen quicker and with a greater chance of permanent beneficial change that would increase efficiency and service for Louisiana taxpayers if Jindal moves goes for the grand slam on this one. Election-year politics could distract him from this mundane but valuable attempt, yet the conditions will never be better for him finally to fix the morass that has interfered with effective use of taxpayer dollars.

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