By Chas Sisk / The Tennessean
A judge's decision to freeze layoffs of hundreds of state
employees calls into question whether Gov. Bill Haslam's administration
has followed through on concessions made in exchange for backing civil
Circuit Court Judge Amanda McClendon will hear
testimony next week in a suit filed by the Tennessee State Employees
Association, along with 15 career government workers, that says the
Haslam administration took down a website meant to help state employees
find jobs in other departments.
They say the move violated the civil service law Haslam signed just two years ago.
suit may open the door for further questions about how the Haslam
administration has implemented the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability
and Management Act, or TEAM Act. An attorney for the plaintiffs seeks
class-action status, claiming there may have been widespread violations
of the law.
"I'm getting calls from workers in other state
departments," said Larry Woods, the plaintiffs' lawyer. "There are
active discussions going on about the scope of the litigation."
suit, filed late Monday afternoon in Nashville, claims the Department
of Human Resources took down NeoGov, a website meant to help state
workers find new positions, during the first week of May. The move came
soon after about 200 people across state government received notices
they would be laid off.
McClendon issued a temporary restraining
order just hours after the suit was filed. A hearing on the suit will be
held Monday at 9 a.m.
John McManus, a spokesman for the
Department of Human Resources, told the Chattanooga Times Free Press
last week that the website was scheduled to receive maintenance and will
relaunch June 19.
But Robert O'Connell, TSEA's executive
director, said the decision effectively rendered meaningless a
requirement that state workers be given 60 days' notice and job
"What this (suit) will get for us is the full 60 days
when people are subject to layoffs," he said. "When you're making a
career in state government ... to be put out all of a sudden on the
street is pretty devastating."
McManus and a spokesman for Haslam, David Smith, declined to provide additional comment, citing the lawsuit.
of the defendants, interim Commissioner of Labor and Workforce
Development Burns Phillips, said his staff had been asked to help
workers who are laid off find new jobs.
"I don't have any
knowledge" of the suit, he said. "Everybody we had to lay off ... they
are a priority. We have programs in place to help them to the greatest
Haslam agreed to the job counseling and the
60-day notice requirements two years ago as part of a deal to win TSEA
approval for his civil service initiative.
The law also says the
state would consider other factors, such as seniority, job performance,
abilities and disciplinary record, in determining which employees will
be laid off.
Linda White, a 39-year state employee from Memphis,
said she joined the suit because she does not believe the Department of
Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services followed those procedures
before laying her off from her job as an accountant at the Memphis
Mental Health Institute.
White, who had to accept a position
downgrade during a round of layoffs two years ago, said a ruling in her
favor would give her a chance to find another position elsewhere in
state government. She fears she would be too old to find a comparable
position in the private sector.
"This would give me some time," she said. "I was not expecting this layoff, and I need a job."
White, several plaintiffs in the suit appear to be late in their
careers. The five whose careers are described in the filing have all
worked 20 years or more for the state, with four having begun work in
If the suit succeeds, the plaintiffs would receive
about 45 days of more pay and time to find new work, said Woods. They
also may have a shot at extending their careers.
"This is a very valuable thing to them," said O'Connell. "You've got to make the notice period a true 60-day notice period."