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State ready to implement 'merit reform'

State ready to implement 'merit reform'

August 26th, 2018 by Bob Watson in Local News

A state employee makes her way to the Truman Building's High Street entrance, with the reflection of the Missouri Capitol in the glass, at the end of the business day on Friday afternoon, June 27, 2014.

Photo by Kris Wilson

Beginning Tuesday, Missouri's Merit System ends for nearly all state employees.

The bill ending the Merit System was one of the 77 measures lawmakers passed this year, that then-Gov. Eric Greitens signed into law June 1, just hours before he resigned from, and left, the governor's office.

Created in the mid-1940s, the system was, according to the Office of Administration's web page, "designed to protect employees from arbitrary actions, personal favoritism, and political coercion" — and recently was covering about 56 percent of all state employees, while the others worked at non-Merit departments and agencies.

The new law puts all state employees under the same, non-Merit regulations, including removing the testing requirements to qualify for a job, and canceling the appeals process for a Merit System employee who was disciplined or fired.

That appeals process was little-used anyway, Missouri Chief Operating Officer Drew Erdmann said last week.

Since December 2015, he said, only 130 employment appeals cases had been filed with the Administrative Hearing Commission under the Merit System law — less than one-half of 1 percent of all Merit System employees.

"It's a very small number," Erdmann said. "Basically, about 99 percent of the workforce didn't avail themselves of" the appeals provisions.

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Among the new law's changes is a provision that makes all state employees "at-will" employees — meaning they "shall serve at the pleasure of their respective appointing authorities, and may be discharged for no reason or any reason not prohibited by law."

So, employees can't be terminated because of their age, gender, race, religion or ethnicity — although a different law passed last year requires an employee to show that discrimination was the principal reason for the firing.

During the Legislature's debate on the Merit System bill last spring, supporters of the law change noted many state employees already work under those non-Merit conditions, which also exist in most non-state jobs in Missouri.

However, opponents complained the change will mean a return to political favoritism and wholesale changes in the state's workforce every time there's a change in governors or other elected officials.

Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe — who was a state senator until appointed to his current job in June — sponsored the bill changing the long-standing law.

"I was proud to sponsor Senate Bill 1007 in the Senate because I know the importance of having the best people in the right positions throughout every organization," he told the News Tribune last week. "Whether running a small business or state government — which is a corporation with 50,000 employees and a $28-plus billion budget — success depends upon getting and keeping talented employees."

Sarah Steelman, Missouri's commissioner of Administration, said last week: "The merit reform law — the main goal — was to make it easier to hire people and recruit people, so that removing a lot of the obstacles that the merit system put in place.

"Now we can make it much easier for good, talented people to apply for state jobs.

"So, that will increase the talent pool."

Even before Greitens signed the bill into law, Steelman began communicating with employees about the changes the new law brings.

In a May 20 email, she wrote: "This legislation will provide more flexibility in how the workforce is managed," including:

  • Allowance for departments to select the best-qualified applicant for positions.
  • The use of open, step-less pay ranges for UCP positions to allow departments flexibility in administering pay.
  • Expanded use of broad banded job classes.

Allowance for agencies to more quickly and effectively address disciplinary issues that arise.

She's continued to send regular emails to state employees, and has held several on-line and telephone conference calls, "for any employee who has any questions about merit reform — how it affects them and what it means to them."

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Erdmann noted Steelman's ongoing communication efforts, and pointed to other efforts that began even before the law changes were passed.

"(This year) is, I believe, the first time that, on a regular basis — meaning every week — representatives of all the different departments' HR teams are getting together to work through common challenges," he said. "That had never happened before.

"So, that's one of the reasons why I would have a higher degree of confidence than, let's say, a year ago, that all the kinks have been worked out — or, at least, most of the kinks have been worked out."

People shouldn't be concerned the new law will take the state back to the time when state managers played favorites in their hiring and firing decisions, Steelman said.

"Good employees who are doing their job have nothing to worry about," she said, adding the question hasn't come up during her Town Hall meetings.

Erdmann added, "What we're trying to do in so many ways is, we're trying to get the best people into state government.

"And, once they're in government, we want to make sure that it's flexible, and they can develop to achieve their full potential and deliver as much impact as possible."

Kehoe said, "In the two months I have been Lieutenant Governor, I have had the good fortune to visit state departments and offices across the state.

"In almost every instance, managers and employees have pulled me aside to say how much they are looking forward to the change because it will allow agencies to put the employees in the right job based upon their skills and performance rather than scoring from an archaic and inherently inefficient system."

Merit System opponents have long complained it prevented managers from promoting or rewarding good employees and those who did their jobs well.

Kehoe said, "There are incredibly talented and innovative employees throughout state government and merit reform is critical to unleashing their talents and innovation for the benefit of all Missourians."

Steelman said administrators and department managers have been preparing for the new law's implementation, for some time.

"It will go smoothly," she said. "I'm saying that with confidence, because I think we've worked through everything that could happen before Aug. 28."

Steelman said the general public should support the new law, because it will mean the state can hire"well-qualified" talent — and that should help people do business better with the state.

And the state will be more competitive in its hiring practices.

"That does pay off for the taxpayers," she said.

"The more qualified people we have working for the state of Missouri, the better outcomes we're going to have for the citizens of Missouri."