A bill passed by the Missouri Senate would largely discard the state’s merit system of employment for state workers and change their status to “at will”.
The move would allow state departments to fire employees at any time. About half of state workers are employed under the Missouri Merit System in six agencies including the departments of Corrections, Health and Senior Services, Mental Health, Natural Resources and Social Services as well as the Office of Administration.
The system dates to the 1940’s and according to a description by the Office of Administration was designed to protect employees from arbitrary actions, personal favoritism, and political coercion. The description says the system provides a competitive examination process for recruitment and retention of a qualified workforce.
The proposal passed out of the Senate calls for all state employees not required by law to be in the merit system to be considered at-will employees, serving at the pleasure of their respective appointing authorities.
The measure was sponsored by Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, who has roughly 14,000 state workers in his district. He says the top complaint he hears from those employees after low pay is that the merit system unfairly rewards lazy workers.
“Next conversation is, and I work my tail off and the person next to me doesn’t work hard at all, they don’t show up for work, but because they’re high on the merit system registry, they are the first ones considered for advancement and promotion, and I don’t have a chance,” said Kehoe.
A study conducted by the state in 2016 found that Missouri has the lowest paid state employees in the country with wages that are more than 10% below what is considered competitive in the job market.
The bill does not include employees at agencies that are required to maintain merit standards in order to qualify for federal funding aid. Kehoe says the federal requirement largely applies to 5,470 workers within the Department of Corrections who work at the state’s 21 prisons.
The measure was approved in the upper chamber by a 21-12 margin with all nine Democrats and three Republicans – Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph, Gary Romine of Farmington and Paul Weiland of Imperial – joining them. Romine and Weiland represent districts with significant interests from organized labor groups.
Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, is a 35-year union member, president of the Missouri State Building & Construction Trades Council and serves on the executive board of the Missouri AFL-CIO. During floor debate on the bill, Walsh expressed major displeasure with its language stating that workers could be fired “for no reason or any reason”.
“I mean this says to me that if a boss comes in one morning and was having a bad day and nobody is performing up to his standards that he can just tell them ‘That’s it, you’re finished’,” said Walsh.
Fellow Democrat Jill Schupp of Creve Coeur also disapproved of the proposal, saying it lowers the bargaining power of employees.
“That’s one of my overarching concerns about the bill,” said Schupp. “And our state employees, who are some of the lowest paid employees in the nation, need to be able to work together to collectively bargain.”
Although Schupp voted against the measure, she successfully added an amendment to it that preserves whistleblower protections for state employees.
A contentious bill that became law last year weakened shielding for employees in both the private and public sectors who report workplace wrongdoing.
A bill passed by the Senate earlier in the current legislative session reinstated such protections to apply to all public employees. Schupp’s amendment inserts that same language in Kehoe’s legislation.
The proposal to largely scrap the merit system at the state level is now in the Missouri House where it must quickly move through the committee level if it’s to have any hope of getting approved by the full chamber in the final days of the legislative session which ends May 18th.
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