Running state like a business rings hollow for workers

Friday, June 19, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 25

More and more, Tennessee’s state employees are feeling the same harsh realities of those working – or formerly working – in corporate America.

On the heels of 1,500 buyouts under the Bredesen administration in 2008 and 850 layoffs in 2010, Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is offering voluntary buyouts to more than 2,000 employees in the executive branch.

But some wonder whether the word “voluntary” really applies.

“It’s like a game show,” says one state employee who received the buyout proposal but asked not to be named. “You can have this or you can have what’s behind curtain No. 2, and end up with a pack of pigs you can take home and put in your backyard.

“You don’t know what you’re going to get. So when you feel like it’s so uncertain, you want to take what you know rather than try to take a gamble.”

If your position is being eliminated or set for reclassification, then you probably don’t have much choice but to take the buyout. Otherwise, you could run the risk of losing your job, plain and simple, or being shifted to a vacant position or state job somewhere else in Tennessee, which would likely be a demotion, the employee points out.

State workers maintained some semblance of civil service seniority when the Legislature passed the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management (TEAM) Act in 2012.

But those who’ve been around the longest are the most likely to go home in this new round of cuts.

Only those with five years of experience are eligible for the buyouts, and if an agency receives more buyout applications than are needed, then seniority will determine who gets to walk out the door.

If the state doesn’t draw enough buyout applications, “involuntary layoffs may occur in some agencies. In addition, some job titles may be reclassified or reallocated,” the Tennessee State Employees Association states on its website.

Those who are near retirement probably feel like they have to retire, even if they want to keep working for five more years, because of the uncertainty surrounding their jobs.

It’s a common problem in the private sector: You’re the face of the company one day, or at least an important cog, and expendable the next.

Strong and steady work ethic and a lifetime of contributions don’t mean much when the ultimate goal is to cut costs, no matter how poorly the company operates as a result.

“It’s all to save money. They’re in the process of consolidating every department one at a time” to Finance and Administration [being] in charge of technical support, the employee says. “And it’s just going to be a big mess because customer service is going out the window. … Working for the state is just not what it used to be.”

Gov. Haslam, who has made no secret of wanting to run state government like a private business, told reporters recently the executive branch is “re-examining” state government to figure out what positions are no longer needed so those can be offered the voluntary buyout.

“We hire you to do X position and we had 20 of those, and we think we just need 15 of those now, due to technology or whatever,” Haslam says in an Associated Press report.

Based on numbers within each agency, Human Services offered 585 buyouts, Transportation 511, Revenue 275 and Environment and Conservation 141.

With a July 17 deadline looming, only 300 employees had sought a buyout by the beginning of June. Haslam says no specific number is budgeted, though it’s safe to say 300 isn’t the target.

Those applying could receive severance packages worth four months of base salary plus $500 for every year with the state. They’ll also receive subsidized health insurance for six months and as much as $15,600 for college tuition, an offer expiring June 2018.

But the employee who spoke to The Ledger points out accumulated days for vacation and sick time will be lumped in with the buyout package and taxed at the same rate, so those with a large amount of annual time built up could lose money if they take the buyout and retire.

The State Employees Association is concerned workers may be confused about the consequences of taking the buyout or not, as well as the effect of 2,000 buyouts on the quality of state services.

“There needs to be a complete understanding of what’s on the table,” TSEA President Bryan Merritt says in an email to the Associated Press.

If you’re one of those employees upset about the buyout offer, don’t hold your breath waiting for an explanation. Ultimately, “efficiency” is the goal, which in the private sector usually means people will lose jobs, pushing the rest of the employees to take up the slack.

While employees are concerned about whether this buyout money will be able to prop them up financially very long, the bigger question may be on their psyche. Buyouts and layoffs are debilitating.

“It’s just been really unsettling. It just leaves such a bad taste in your mouth,” the employee says. “There’s a big part of me that just wants to leave and don’t look back.

“It’s not what it was. You don’t feel rewarded. You don’t feel appreciated. It’s like, ‘just be happy you have a job. Don’t complain about anything.’”

Jobs are a funny thing. When you have one, you don’t think much about the person who doesn’t or the person who’s about to be laid off.

That appears to be the feeling for many Tennesseans, especially those who look at state and local governments as bloated bureaucracies full of lazy employees riding the gravy train.

Then again, those same Tennesseans are likely to cry the loudest when they can’t get someone in the Department of Revenue to answer a phone call.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.