Many state employees received an email Friday from Sarah Steelman, Missouri's commissioner of Administration, noting the Legislature's passage of a bill that makes major changes to the state Merit System.
"We are pleased to have the support from the General Assembly of our management priorities to drive deep, fundamental change in how our government works for our citizens," Steelman wrote. "These are common sense, back to basics changes which will provide continued opportunities to make government better for our committed employees and our citizens.
"If signed into law 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.
The proposed law, which Gov. Eric Greitens has supported and Steelman expects him to sign, removes many of the Merit System protections that currently exist for more than half of the state's 55,000 employees.
Among its changes are 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."
Supporters of the law change noted many state employees already work under those conditions, which also exist in most non-state jobs in Missouri.
Opponents complained the change means 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.
But, Steelman told the News Tribune Friday afternoon: "That's absolutely not what this is about. This is about making sure we have better ways to better manage, recruit and reward and recognize and retain the workforce.
"It is not about going in and firing people — not at all."
Steelman's email Friday reminded state employees the Merit System — which has been part of state law since the end of World War II — doesn't apply now to seven state departments and more than 40 percent of all employees.
She said during a half-hour interview Friday: "We know that we have lots of committed, dedicated state workers, who do great work in government. And those people will stay and work, as they always have.
"What we're trying to do is make it easier to recruit people to come to work in state government.
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"We want to make sure that we have tools that we can easily reward people and move people from one job to another, if something changes," such as finding efficiencies in one position but making it easier to move a good employee to another position.
As she said in a previous interview, Steelman noted previous OA commissioners of both political parties and various administrations have found the Merit System too inflexible for dealing with modern-day management issues.
Under the current Merit System, job applicants take a test and are placed on a list of eligible employees for particular job vacancies as they occur.
Supporters of the law changes have said keeping people on that list makes it harder to fill job vacancies when they occur, and those who scored below the top 15 percent on the test are not added to the list, even if they have the skills needed to do a job.
If signed into law, the bill would go into effect Aug. 28.
The House rejected a proposed amendment that would have made the changes effective only for people hired after Aug. 28.
Steelman said she's not concerned about any legal challenges to the proposed law.
"There is some misinformation out there, and I'm not sure where it's coming from," she said. "We're not taking away any retirement benefits or anything like that."
Her Friday email said: "A number of misconceptions have arisen as this initiative has moved through the legislative process, and we want to assure you that MERIT reform will NOT change:"
- Employee benefits in any way (including annual/sick leave and retirement)
- Rate of pay
- Many protections for employees (such as whistleblower, sexual harassment, discrimination of any kind)
- State and federal comp time
- How you do your job (including your position, title, or assigned duties)
- The role of appointing authorities (such as department or division heads)
- ENGAGE and other employee development
- State holidays.
Some labor movement supporters argued the bill is part of a more general effort by conservatives to disrespect state employees — whose average pay already is the lowest in the country.
However, Steelman said: "We believe that our state workers already are our most precious assets and, I believe, have been neglected for years."
She pointed to the administration's adoption of the "Engage" system for reviewing employee work and professional development, and said the change in the Merit System law also is intended to "make working for state government really a better place to be."
Steelman noted lawmakers added some money in the 2018-19 state budget — that goes into effect July 1 — for pay raises beginning next Jan. 1.
"We also got funding for what we call 'Reward for Performance,' so that we can really take a hard look, and a comprehensive look, and make sure we are rewarding and recognizing and creating incentives for those state workers who really invest a lot in their work and time," Steelman said, "making government better for the citizens of Missouri."
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Looking at outcomes and results is driving a number of administrative changes, including the Merit System modifications lawmakers approved last week.
"We want to be able to have metrics and measurements of how we have changed and transformed government," she said.
Steelman said the majority of state workers work hard but don't get recognized the way they should.
She knows the changes will have to be phased-in but hopes they'll be in effect sooner rather than later.
Steelman said the wholesale changes in the law were proposed only after efforts to adjust it didn't work.
"It has been done in the past, but it's never enough," she said. "Anybody who's served in this (OA commissioner's) capacity has recognized the problems with the Merit System and how archaic it is and how it just not has kept up with the way we do business today.
"It covers all of the ranges of recruitment, development, retention and reward — and it doesn't do a good job at any of those."
Steelman's Friday email to state employees urged them to "watch for further communication from your director in the coming weeks, as to how these changes will apply specifically to your department."