A Bill of Rights for State Workers?

By: - April 3, 2012 12:00 am

It may not seem as though a “Public Employees’ Bill of Rights” is an idea whose time has come in California, where furloughs, pension reform and other cost-cutting measures have been the typical topics of debate during the past few years. 

But for the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, the very real, ongoing threat of major changes to the state’s relationship with its employee is just proof that the legislation is needed. 

Dickinson, whose Sacramento district includes more public employees than any other, believes that conditions for state employees have generally improved under Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s administration. Even so, the widespread furloughs and accompanying pay cuts have caused prolonged personal and professional turmoil for many of his constituents over the past few years, he says. 

He believes that fundamental rights, including priority over private-sector contractors in filling permanent, overtime and on-call positions, need to be codified so that they aren’t subject to the whims of whatever governor or particular agency manager who happens to be in charge.

The bill delineates a laundry list of other rights and protections, some of which are typical practice or already addressed in other areas of state law and others of which would require agencies to significantly alter their ways of doing business. A large chunk of the bill deals with work rules: Employees would be protected against “unreasonable quotas” and guaranteed the right to use leave time and be paid in proportion to time worked. 

“An employee shall not be compelled to perform extra work, including work caused by vacancies, furloughs, or layoffs, without fair compensation,” another provision says.

The bill was passed out of the Assembly’s Public Employees, Retirement and Social Security committee last week and some insiders believe that it has a good chance of becoming law in California, where Democrats control the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature. But it has also been a popular source of derision there in recent weeks.

The editorial board of the The Modesto Bee, for example, called the bill “a gesture that stretches the bounds of pandering” in a recent editorial. “There is hardly a workplace in recession-battered America that has not been hit with layoffs,” the Bee said. “Private-sector workers regularly shoulder additional responsibilities along with pay cuts. It’s how many deal with a drastically altered economic reality. Despite the valuable work that many of them do, government workers should not be shielded from such realities.” 

Dickinson takes issue with popular belief at the heart of opponents’ objections that public employees in California are already getting a pretty sweet deal because of union representation and strong collective bargaining rights. “I don’t know how good a deal it is to get your salary cut by 15 percent,” he says. “I don’t know how good of a deal it is to wake up and have people on radio show and on the news deriding what you do for your career or your profession. I don’t know how comfortable it is to have people use the term public employee as an epithet. I think it has become much more challenging in the past several years to be a public employee.”

Rights enumerated

The bill would give employees the right to speedy discipline and institute a year-long statute of limitations; protections against discrimination; the right to an accurate and detailed job description; whistleblower protections; the right to fair, progressive discipline and preventive and corrective action when job performance is failing. Employee grievances not resolved within an agreed-upon timeframe would automatically be resolved in favor of the employee.

Stuart Bussey, president of the Union of American Physicians & Dentists, which is pushing the legislation, says some of the most important provisions for his members relate to oversight of employees who are required to maintain professional licenses, such as nurses and lawyers. Currently, he says, many of the people responsible for supervising the medical professionals who belong to his union have no prior experience in medicine. 

The result is often problematic and sometimes results in true ethical quandaries, where employees are asked to behave in ways that are contrary to well-established ethical professional standards, he says. The bill addresses this by requiring that an “employee shall not be required to perform work that could put his or her professional license in jeopardy.” It would also entitle employees with professional licenses to performance reviews that are conducted by or include input from peers with similar professional credentials. 

The included work rules are also important to Bussey because managers at overburdened state medical facilities routinely disregard agreements reached at the bargaining table. “There’s a push to see more and more people,” he says. “They’re expected to stay longer consistently than the 40 hours they are paid for. There are really no checks and balances. They give you an unlimited amount of work and say go do it.”

Contracting out

Perhaps the most controversial provision in the legislation is giving public employees priority over contractors. Unions argue that outsourcing has gotten out of control — with high costs and insufficient oversight — and routinely runs afoul of state laws.

The current oversight process just rubber-stamps agency justifications for outsourcing, says Jim Zamora, a spokesperson for Service Employees International Union 1000, the largest union of state employees. “We don’t think you can get rid of all contracts, but that doesn’t mean that it’s open season either, especially when it isn’t going to save you any money,” he says. 

According to a recent SEIU report dubbing the private sector “The Hidden Branch of Government,” personal service contracts make up about 8 percent of California’s overall expenses. A review of the state contracts between 2003 and 2011 found that the state spent $130.6 billion on personal service contracts during that period, out of an overall budget of about $1.7 trillion.

Opponents of the legislation, including Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the Reason Foundation, a free-market think tank, says that California’s established laws regard when and how the state can contract with the private sector are already the one of most restrictive in the country. An agency has to be able to demonstrate cost-savings or a lack of existing expertise or capacity, among other requirements. “It’s already very hard for the state to do any kind of contracting out,” he says. The private sector can often provide services more cheaply and effectively than state workers, and should be allowed to do so where practical, he says. 

For Bussey, the leader of the Union of American Physicians & Dentists, the push for privatization is just another part of a backlash against public employees that, in his view, is all a big misunderstanding. “I just think that people aren’t aware of what it is to be a public worker,” he says. “Really it’s not a glamorous job. You really give a lot of yourself for a long time.”

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Melissa Maynard

Melissa Maynard oversees the Pew state fiscal health project’s Fiscal 50 online resource, which helps policymakers understand fiscal, economic, and demographic trends affecting their states by tracking tax revenue, reserves, employment rates, Medicaid spending, and other issues important to long-term fiscal health.