By TIM ROWDEN
Jefferson City – An overhaul of the hiring system for Missouri state workers championed by disgraced former governor Eric Greitens recently went into effect amid fears that it could turn state social service jobs into patronage positions.
Under the new law, which took effect Aug. 28, state government employees can now be “discharged for no reason or any reason not prohibited by law.” The law eliminates the State Merit System, which for more than seven decades required workers to be hired or promoted based on skill and protected them for being fired arbitrarily.
The General Assembly established the merit system in 1946 to prevent political patronage when hiring for non-political state jobs and to bring professionalism to personnel decisions. Nothing in the merit system prohibited workers from being fired for cause or poor performance.
Prior to the adoption of the merit system, nearly all state workers – including janitors, secretaries, cooks, nurses, corrections officers and state troopers and others – risked
losing their jobs whenever control of the governor’s office switch from one party to another.
WORKERS ARE NERVOUS
Natashia Pickens, president of the Communications Workers of America Local 6355, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the new law was making some social service workers nervous.
“We do work for the government,” Pickens said. “If I choose to support a candidate, and that candidate is of the opposite party, am I going to be at risk of losing my job? These are a lot of questions that we’ve had, and we’ve not been able to get any responses.”
Under the state’s merit system, most employees are hired based on their performance on standardized tests, rather than their allegiance to a particular politician or political party.
The new law removes the requirement that employees must rank in the top 15 percent of applicants — or in the top 15 applicants — to be selected for a state job. Now, workers need only meet the minimum requirements of the particular job class.
What’s more, Pickens said the new law guts established processes that protected merit employees from frivolous complaints.
A DEAL WITH DISGRACED GOVERNOR
Those changes and others stem from deal scandal-plagued Greitens laid out in his budget proposal in February, in which he said he’d sign off on small raises for state workers – who remain the lowest paid in the nation – in exchange for legislation that could make it easier for the governor’s administration to hire, fire and reward government workers.
Gov. Mike Parson, the Republican who took over after Greitens quit, praised the new law, saying it would give the state greater flexibility in how it manages its workforce.
Lawmakers included $700-per-year raises for state workers in the budget, but the increase won’t go into effect until Jan. 1.
State Representative Doug Beck (D-Affton), a member of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 562, noted that no Democrats in either the House or the Senate voted for the change, while just four Republicans, one in the House and three in the Senate, voted against it.
The bill was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe (R-Jefferson City) whom Parson appointed to replace him as lieutenant governor in June.