A bill passed by the Missouri Legislature in the last days of the session, and sign by former Republican Governor Eric Greitens on his last day in office, will largely discard the state’s merit system of employment for state workers and change their status to “at will”.
The new law will 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 new statute, which will take effect August 28th, 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 the Cole County portion of his district. He says the measure would add efficiency to state government because it would reflect the way businesses are run.
“We should continue to run it like a business is run,” said Kehoe. “And this is how a private business is run. Employees work for the business. They are at-will employees.”
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 new law 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 in opposition. Romine and Weiland represent districts with significant interests from organized labor groups.
The bill passed the House 98-38 where three Democrats tried unsuccessfully to amend it. Among them was Peter Meredith of St. Louis, who attempted to grandfather current employees into the current merit system.
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. She thinks language in the law leaves too much room for out of control managers to abuse workers.
“The part that’s really rattling my cage is ‘may be discharged for no reason’,” said Walsh.
Fellow Democrat Maria Chappelle-Nadal of University City thinks the new law fails to provide security for experienced employees who bring important knowledge to the workplace.
“It’s very important,” said Chappelle-Nadal. “I mean literally there some people who are in situations where if it were not for their knowledge base, the state of Missouri would be fined.”
Fellow Democrat Jill Schupp of Creve Couer voted against the bill before its passage, but still 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 inserted that same language in the new law.
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