Kansas Civil Service Overhaul Headed To Senate Tuesday

By John Celock

Legislation that would overhaul Kansas’ civil service system is headed to the state Senate next week following passage by the state House this week.

The bill, which would make it easier to change a classified position to unclassified, is scheduled for a hearing in front of the Senate Commerce Committee Tuesday. The state House of Representatives earlier this week approved the bill 74-51. Bill supporters say the legislation will improve state government management and the state workforce, while opponents say it will politicize state government and harm workers.

“This is an opportunity for state employees to get out from underneath a very structured step system,” Rep. Erin Davis (R-Olathe), who carried the bill on the House floor, told The Celock Report. “They can be cross trained and have the opportunity for cross training because they are not bound by the strict interpretation of the job description. It is a win-win.”

Davis said that under the current civil service system a classified state employee cannot take on additional duties outside of their job description. She said this prohibits employees from growing in their jobs and makes it tougher for managers to manage the state workforce.

“You can’t develop a new set of skills and put that to work. If you are a department head and want to see an employee do a lot more, you’ll be able to offer the opportunity to give the employee the opportunity to be cross trained,” Davis said. “You are bound by job description. If you are unclassified and are bright, able and ambitious, and want to take on other projects you can do that. This is an opportunity for people to develop the skills if they want to.”

Rebecca Proctor, the executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees, disagreed with Davis. Proctor, who has been leading opposition to the bill said that most classified state employees have clauses in their job descriptions that allow them to take on additional duties outside of what is prescribed. She said the only prohibitions currently say that an employee cannot take the additional duties from jobs outside of their pay grade on a long-term basis.

Under the bill a current classified state employee can only move to an unclassified position if they agree to the move. In addition, state departments would be able to move classified positions to unclassified status if the job is open. Supporters argued in the House debate that the plan would allow for state agencies to tailor job descriptions for a better pool of candidates. The proposal was developed by the state Department of Administration as part of a larger overhaul of the state’s human resources policy.

The House Commerce, Labor and Economic Development Committee stripped the bill of two Administration Department proposals to change the state’s longevity pay program and redefine the state’s shared leave program for employees seeking to care for a family illness. Both of those programs will remain under the current system.

State agencies can currently make the classified to unclassified changes but the bill would streamline the process.

Proctor argues that the program will not be voluntary. She said that the union believes that under language that allows for a classified employee to be promoted into an unclassified position at their choice, state workers will face a choice of taking a promotion and losing civil service protections or remaining “stagnant” to retain the protections.

Proctor also said the union is concerned that state agencies could try to reorganize positions to make them unclassified. She cited a reorganization in December where she said workers were given the choice of either becoming unclassified or losing their jobs.

“It is quote unquote voluntary but sometimes your choices are not good choices,” Proctor said.

Davis stressed that the program would remain completely voluntarily.

“If you are currently a classified employee you are not obligated to be unclassified,” she said. “Whether or not you take advantage of that is your choice.”

During the House debate this week and the committee discussion last week, Davis and other supporters stressed that state agencies would not be required to make the changes. They said that agencies could decide to keep positions classified. They stressed that the bill is a management tool to allow for a choice for agency heads.

Proctor also expressed concerns that the state could be hurting its chances of receiving grants from the federal government with the change. She said that federal rules require for certain grants to be administered by state workers who have civil service or other merit protections. She said that under federal rules the agencies would need to provide a system to ensure to the federal government that the workers were being protected and she does not see it in the bill.

Proctor said that among the grants that could be impacted are Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, unemployment and those in the Department of Children and Families.

Administration Department public affairs director John Milburn said the federal regulations are being addressed. He said the state does not want to lose any federal funding and is working to address these concerns.

Milburn noted that in addition to agencies being able to keep posts classified, the bill addresses the issue by requiring a merit system be put in place for unclassified workers with these grants.

“We have the language in place for agencies that have a number of unclassified employees and that meets the federal requirements,” Milburn told The Celock Report. “The bill requires that the merit system address those concerns. We don’t want to lose any federal funding.”

Proctor said she is concerned the changes proposed under the bill could lead to each agency having its own human resources policies instead of a uniform policy for state government.

Proctor also expressed concerns that unclassified posts could lead to employees being dismissed for any reasons, including politics. She said that while the private sector has at-will employment, the nature of state government having an election for governor every four years could lead to a return to increased political patronage under the bill.

Proctor also expressed concern over members of her union in the Department of Corrections under the bill.

“When you make them at-will, a corrections officer can be summarily fired from an inmate complaint,” she said. “You should not give the inmates more rights than those who are in charge.”

Davis disagreed with the assessment that state government is different from the private sector. She said politics plays a role in the workforce in both sectors but employees are judged on merit.

“I can say that I have worked in state agencies and the private sector and no job that I have had is free of politics. I think in every job there is a political nature,” Davis said. “The employee is judged on their work ethic and work product. That’s applied equally in private and public sectors.”

Davis said that her experience having worked in state government also led her to support keeping the longevity and shared leave programs in place. Under the Administration Department’s original plan, the longevity bonus would have been shifted from coming from the agency budget to having to be appropriated by the Legislature, while the shared leave program definition would have been returned to only being usedfor life threatening illnesses.

Supporters of the longevity program have said it is being used to provide bonuses to employees in light of stagnant state salaries in recent years. Davis said the shared leave program can promote morale in the state workforce.

“It builds a great workplace camaraderie,” Davis told The Celock Report. “In the public or private sector it is good to have that.”

Proctor said that she and her allies will continue to fight the plan, saying that she wants to protect state workers. She said another concern is that the changes could allow the state to balance the budget by consolidating jobs.

“It is heinous all the way around,” she said.

Davis said she is confident of Senate passage. She said the Senate has not had a problem tackling various bills this year.

“I don’t think the controversy surrounding this causes them to shy away,” she said.

Milburn said that he remains optimistic as the bill heads into the Senate. He said that with the bill passing the House with 11 more votes than the minimum needed to pass, he believes that it is a sign that lawmakers want to enact the changes sought by the Administration Department.

“We’re very pleased with the 74 votes. We feel that shows strong support for moving this important piece of legislation forward and helping the state manage human resources in its agencies,” Milburn said. “We are hoping for similar support in the Senate and signing by the governor. We hope this bill gives us the ability to be more nimble and more business like in our practices.”