Laid-off workers challenge parts of TN civil service law

5:13 PM, Jun 12, 2013   |    comments
Governor Bill Haslam
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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 service reforms.

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.

The 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."

The 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 counseling.

"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.

One 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 extent possible."

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."

Like 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 the 1970s.

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."

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