Public employees are pushing back some of the new disciplinary rules that were imposed as part of the controversial 2011 repeal of legal union rights for most government workers in Wisconsin.
The Jefferson County Board last week loosened a proposed discipline standard after unions protested, and Columbia County employees are winning a series of changes to a controversial policy that top officials wrote behind closed doors to prevent employee input.
Union leaders say many of the new rules are unfair. Public administrators for schools and municipalities say it hasn’t been easy to write rules to replace union contract provisions that evolved over 50 years of collective bargaining.
“This is an entirely new arena,” said Andrew Phillips, an attorney for the Wisconsin Counties Association. “We are going to have to execute management in areas where we have never executed it before.”
Among the stickiest parts of the personnel policies are rules on how and when employees can appeal disciplinary actions they believe are unfair.
Most counties had at least makeshift appeal policies in place in October to meet a state deadline, but many are now making revisions, Phillips said.
Employees are fighting rules they say leave them vulnerable to a biased system that requires little evidence to justify taking away a person’s job.
“The standards being adopted in many of the counties are a very low threshold for employers and offer very little protection for workers,” said Martha Merrill, lead research analyst for the Madison-based American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 40 who recently surveyed all county governments in the state.
Patchwork of policies
The patchwork of policies that has sprung up across the state includes fees of up to $400 to appeal discipline, a requirement that an employee hire an attorney, and rules under which only a select few facts of a case are considered in the final decision made by the local elected body, Merrill said.
Phillips defended the policies, saying that employees have always paid fees through union dues, that hiring of attorneys makes a more orderly process, and that it is too cumbersome to reexamine every detail in the final appeal.
A spokeswoman for the state’s largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, called the new rules a sham because many don’t allow union representation and fees are too costly for part-time classroom aides or food service workers.
“On top of that, most ‘impartial’ hearing officers are retired or current administrators from other districts,” WEAC spokeswoman Christina Brey said in an email.
Despite the protests, Phillips said few counties are making the kind of major concessions seen last week in Jefferson County, where a county board committee had recommended an “at will” policy that would have allowed discipline and firing for almost any reason.
After employees objected in February the board rejected the proposal. On Tuesday, officials passed a policy requiring “just cause” for discipline, and a progressive system of gradually increasing penalties, said county administrator Gary Petre. The “just cause” standard means an employer must prove specific wrongdoing and apply a penalty that is appropriate. The policy, like the expired union contract, allows immediate firings in extreme cases involving lawbreaking or danger to other workers, Petre said.
Policy drafted in secret
In Columbia County, officials have taken heat for drafting their policy in secret. Board chair Robert Westby said he and two other board members weren’t part of a formal committee, so they weren’t subject to the state Open Meetings Act. However, the state Attorney General’s compliance guide says the law applies to “formal or informal” bodies. Officials also closed meetings to discuss “personnel matters,” but the law is clear that that only applies to discussions on individual employees.
Westby said the committee couldn’t have worked in public because employees would have attended. “I can tell you very point blank why we didn’t involve the union, because we would still be on page one,” Westby said. “Every single word and phrase would be argued over until hell froze over.”
Now, though, employees are asking for changes that probably will be adopted over the next year, Westby said. The first will relax restrictions on overtime and grant a minimum of two hours’ pay to employees called to work in the middle of the night on tasks like clearing fallen trees from roads, Westby said.
The state union law, passed as part of a budget repair bill, hasn’t yet affected workers with unexpired contracts, including several in Dane County.
State employee contracts are expired. The state has maintained a civil service standard requiring “just cause” for serious discipline or termination, Peter Davis, general counsel for the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. But state employees may no longer appeal to a neutral arbitrator in disputes about matters such as vacation scheduling, work rules, overtime or lower-level discipline such as reprimands as they could under union contracts.