Search This Blog


Whiners might win pay raise battle, but lose layoff war

When around 500 Louisiana state employees showed up at the State Civil Service Commission meeting to protest the possible excising of their “merit” raises and the Commission responded by taking no action on a recommendation to do this, they may not want what they wished to get.

Every year, evaluation of most state civil service (comprising about 70 percent of state employees) is supposed to produce “merit” raises. Because of budgetary difficulties this year, Commission staff had proposed forgoing this. (While the Legislature can control money going to agencies, only the SCSC can determine whether merit pay will be distributed.) But the siege of whiners may have changed their minds for the next fiscal year, without another regularly-scheduled meeting until then – which may have unforeseen consequences some won’t particularly like.

The whole “merit” process has been a sham for decades. As explained elsewhere (and depending on how you define the pool of eligibles) anywhere from 96 to 99 percent of classified employees “earn” this added pay every year, turning the concept in the minds of many into a cost-of-living entitlement. And this is on top of the generous situation they already have. If we look at 2006 state staffing levels and 2007 average earnings, Louisiana state public employees, despite being in a state in the bottom five of family incomes, are 36th in average monthly earnings.

(This doesn’t include a benefits package adjudged one of the most generous of all states including for many retiring as early as 60 at full pay averaged over the last three years of work. And maybe you’re wondering why 500 of them could get off work to attend the meeting? Because most state civil service employees get two days off a month, no questions asked. Throw in state holidays and the minimum vacation most get, a week but it can go up to three, do the math, and you’ll see a great many state employees get the equivalent of a minimum of eight weeks of vacation a year. That’s something for all you in the private sector who might get two week’s worth a year, and especially you small business owners who might get next to none, to think about.)

This is why they were so up in arms over what they view as their birthright. And certainly one thing the Commission could do is rewrite the rules not to make a standard 4 percent increase for all who qualify (scoring in any of the top three categories). Instead, it could, like most states, graduate increases by giving out, say, 5 percent increases to those at the highest level, 3 percent to the second-highest, and 1 percent to the third-highest (lowest acceptable) level. Better, the Commission could also institute rules that ensure agencies actually realistically appraise performance so you don’t get the ridiculous and obviously on face unrealistic outcomes of the present where as many as 99 percent of all employees fall in the top three categories.

However, it’s too late for such changes to be made to affect this upcoming fiscal year. But there is an area in which the Commission has acted that may signal a sensible step that will make many of the protesters rue this recent non-decision. It made a change to promote the use of performance (even if it is biased upwards) in layoff decisions, where previously in a layoff plan an agency could have gone basically on seniority only for those with acceptable ratings (in other words, about 99 percent of non-probationary classified employees). It’s a tepid change, forcing out people in the two lowest performance categories and then allowing as many as 20 percent of layoffs to occur on the basis of performance first, but at least it’s a small step in the right direction that needs to be extended in the near future.

Yet if the money crunch will not be made up with no pay raises, it will be made up by laying off people. And few states are more in desperate need that Louisiana in cutting fat in its civil service. Among the states, in per capita state employment, Louisiana ranks 10th. But remove the states with populations under a million, whose small numbers tend to skew upwards that statistic, and Louisiana ranks behind only Hawai’i, Arkansas, New Mexico, and West Virginia – all of which (except Arkansas, at about two-thirds which itself is no model of efficiency) have about half of Louisiana’s population. Put Louisiana in the same category as the dozen states with populations between 3 and 6 million and it’s not even close with Louisiana far and away having the highest per capita number of state employees.

Perhaps what will happen is with the new rules in effect, the state’s response will be a healthy round of layoffs that can much better than in the past get rid of underperforming deadwood that has survived for so long because of seniority that will create a more reasonable staffing levels. (There’s also a small amount of wiggle room that may allow for raises not to be given if they would come at the expense of layoffs.) That’s not a bad tradeoff, raises for many but more pink slips that would have occurred otherwise, and pink slips based more on actual quality than ever before.

Then to keep up the momentum, the SCSC should adopt the merit raise and additional layoff procedures outlined above. And if this makes mad those in the civil service who have slouched along for decades doing just enough and/or knowing enough of the right people to get an annual raise, there’s a whole big private sector economy out there just waiting to properly price your actual abilities if you’d like to leave the cozy confines of state employment.

No comments: