State employees fear reform plans
By SHELBY OPPEL
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 26, 2001
MARIANNA -- Sixty miles east of here, Republican decisionmakers in the state Capitol want to make working for the state more like "real life," as one lawmaker put it, so employees would enjoy less job security but greater incentive to excel.
But for nearly half of Jackson County's working adults, employment with the state is the only life they've ever known. What is real for them is their fear.
"You need to understand that many, many state employees are afraid," said Mary White, 53, who cares for disabled adults at the state-run Sunland Training Center in Marianna. "Don't underestimate that fear."
On Thursday, the House approved sweeping changes for Florida's 125,000 state employees, including about 10,000 in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough, Hernando and Citrus counties, according to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The House measure reflects Gov. Jeb Bush's intention to make state agencies operate more like private businesses. It is fiercely opposed by labor unions, whose leaders say the most onerous provisions would make it easier to fire workers unfairly or when a new governor takes over.
But Bush and the House can't do it alone. To pass legislation, they need the Senate, where lawmakers say they have not even begun to write a bill.
That's how Sen. Rudy Garcia, a Miami-Dade County Republican in charge of writing the measure, ended up in a junior college auditorium in Marianna last week, listening to White and others beg for their livelihoods.
Garcia is so sure that the Senate will depart from the House proposal that he has said the Senate and House will have to negotiate on a final bill.
"There is no done deal," Garcia told the crowd. "No done deal."
Garcia visited Marianna on Wednesday at the invitation of Sen. Al Lawson, a Democrat whose district includes Jackson County. With them was Sen. Richard Mitchell, another north Florida Democrat who represents thousands of state workers. Both serve on the committee that will help Garcia draft the bill.
About 150 men and women, black and white and predominantly middle-aged, met the senators at Chipola Junior College after they got off work. Forty-three percent of working adults in this rural county work for the state, according to the president of the local chamber of commerce. These are the people who decide who gets food stamps and ensure that children stay safe after reports of abuse. They repair communications equipment for the Division of Forestry. They care for criminally insane patients at the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee and for troubled teens at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.
Their parents and grandparents started the trend in the 1960s and '70s, when family farms began to fail and the state government stepped in, building the hospitals and prisons that brought new jobs. Three decades later, they're still growing peanuts in Jackson County, but the government pays most of the bills.
"Please don't let this . . . destroy a lot of lives of loyal people here in Jackson County and around the state," Bill McQuagge, president of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, told the senators.
Under the House bill, roughly 15,000 supervisors and managers would be taken out of the career service category and made "at will" employees who could be hired and fired more easily, as state lottery workers and legislative staff are now.
Those remaining in career service would lose a protection they enjoy currently: Now, the burden is on bosses to prove a firing is not arbitrary or discriminatory. Under the changes, an employee would have to prove that the opposite is true. Firefighters and correctional, probation and law enforcement officers would be exempt from the changes because they persuaded lawmakers that they are exposed to risks that deserve protection. Critics say other state workers face equal risks. One hypothetical example: an environmental regulator, employed by a political appointee who doesn't want bad press, risks his job by reporting water quality problems.
"It's hard to be productive if you're looking over your shoulder, wondering if you're going to have a job tomorrow. Especially when you're doing the people's work," said Mark Neimeiser, political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in an interview.
In Marianna, the workers fear more than career service changes. In his proposed budget, Bush targeted some of their jobs for "outsourcing," his term for enlisting private companies to do state work more cheaply and efficiently. Several speakers told the senators that Bush's efforts appeared to be designed to hurt the Democrat-leaning labor unions that supported Al Gore in the presidential election.
Janet Gray, who supervises child protection workers for the Department of Children and Families, drove over from Panama City, hoping the senators would change her mind about the future. They didn't. "The way we feel it's going to work is they'll make you (at will), move in privatized workers, and you get canned," said Gray, 40.
In Tallahassee, proponents of the career service changes say the changes would afford state workers more respect by treating them like private sector employees who keep their jobs based on merit, not because of special protections. Instead of across-the-board pay raises, another change would give performance bonuses to employees whose peers decide they have made extraordinary contributions.
"You can't be stuck with a 15-year-old system when the world has changed drastically . . . and expect to see great results," said state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican sponsoring the House bill.
"Part of the way we're doing it is by (letting employees) have a say, to participate in savings, to participate in bonuses . . . and then we're also saying now there's going to be accountability," he said. "Those who don't carry their weight are going to be held accountable, like in real life."
In Marianna, the idea of bonuses went over about as well as Bush's mantra that smaller government is better government.
"Bonuses will not work," said Isaiah Morgan, a Pentecostal preacher who is a carpenter at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.
"It's not a fair way to do it. Those that do the most work sometimes don't get what they deserve. It's a good ol' boy network," Morgan, 52, said to cheers.
Many employees spoke frankly to the senators, but it was Kay Stripling, a sociology instructor at the junior college, who made some in the audience cry.
The people of Jackson County, Stripling said, have "wrapped their lives" around state employment. Lawmakers should be careful where they cut. "I want to finish this by telling you, what you call fatty tissue is actually our heart," she said.
Walking to a waiting van after the 21/2-hour meeting, Garcia sounded frustrated. He had hoped to hear fewer testimonials and more ideas for improving the state work force. "They want the status quo and that's it," the senator said. "It doesn't make any sense."
The House on Thursday approved changes for Florida's 125,000 state workers. The Senate has not taken any action. The bill (HB 369) is available online at www.leg.state.fl.us. Among the changes:
Roughly 15,000 supervisors and managers would be made "at will" employees who could be hired and fired more easily. Others would lose a key job protection: Now, bosses must prove firings aren't arbitrary. Under the changes, employees would have to prove that they were. Employees could appeal, but a new Office of Employee Relations with a director appointed by the governor would rule. Now, an independent commission makes those decisions.
Managers could adjust salaries based on performance.
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