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Aiming for Excellence Often Crippled by System

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By Lowell L. Kalapa
Between now and the next legislative session, taxpayers can expect a lot of rhetoric about the reform of the civil service system.

And until the final gavel is sounded to adjourn the 2000 legislative session, no one can be certain of just what reforms will be made to the system. However, there is one thing that everyone agrees on, the system as it exists today is just not working. That is a point that should not be lost on both taxpayers and lawmakers.

On the other hand, how can taxpayers be sure that the changes being proposed and those ultimately adopted by the legislature will indeed improve the system? While there is no right or wrong formula for reform of the civil service system, there are some key issues that have long been identified as stumbling blocks to a more efficient and responsive public employee workforce.

Crucial to any discussion of reform of the civil service system is the interface of collective bargaining and how it interacts with the civil service system. Note well that public officials have gingerly avoided talking about collective bargaining because any hint of changes to the collective bargaining process might incur the wrath of the public employee unions.

To talk about reform of the civil service system without including a discussion of the collective bargaining process ignores the reality of the situation. Among the incongruent points between the two systems is the issue of seniority and bumping rights. This issue has raised its ugly head more recently as policymakers attempted to down-size state programs and eliminate non-essential positions.

While it would seem simple enough to eliminate programs and therefore reduce the size of the state public payroll, the issue of bumping created a situation where employees whose positions or programs were eliminated avoided being laid off because they “bumped” another employee who had less seniority. In many cases, the person was not qualified or did not have the training to do the job he or she took as a result of bumping the person who had that position.

One example was where a teacher who did not want to be transferred to another school bumped a special education instructor even though the teacher doing the bumping was not trained as a special education teacher. The system also allows the person with seniority to retain the same level of compensation even though as a result of “bumping,” he or she takes a position which pays less. The result is an employee who does not have the skills to do the job getting a salary that is greater than what the position would have otherwise paid. Imagine what that does for employee morale among those employees in the same position but without the seniority or the pay scale?

Another issue that needs to be addressed is whether or not managers should be included within collective bargaining. Under current law, supervisory or management personnel have their own union. Even principals, which most parents would agree represent the management of the public schools, are represented by their own union. However, when you stop to think about it, how is it that “management” is a part of organized labor? It sure seems like an oxymoron.

If managers and principals are to represent the management of the public employment system, then it doesn’t seem appropriate that they are a part of organized labor. How can managers and supervisors represent “management” when they themselves are part of labor?

Finally, the issue of “equal pay for equal work” should be reexamined as it pertains to urbanized communities such as Honolulu and rural communities on the neighbor islands. Under the collective bargaining law public employees in the same classification and job description get the same pay regardless of whether the duties or exposure are identical. This is especially true in the case of public safety where police and firefighters in Honolulu would have much different exposure than similar positions on the neighbor islands.

The counties should be given the power of “home rule” in deciding how much they can afford to pay their workers. This difficult point has become increasingly apparent in recent years as the county real property tax base continues to contract. The counties complain that the statewide awards for collective bargaining ignore the fact that the counties do not have equal resources and are sometimes stuck with pay contracts that they cannot afford.

While reform of the civil service system sounds great, reform cannot be complete without examining how collective bargaining has thrown hurdles in the way of an efficient and responsive public employment workforce.

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