User-agent: * Allow: / Trenton Butcher Block: Back to the Future, Out With Civil Service, In With Tammany Hall

"Our Liberties We Prize, Our Rights We Will Defend."

Commentary on national and local events from the standpoint of a Trenton city resident and state worker.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Back to the Future, Out With Civil Service, In With Tammany Hall

Tammany Hall was a real building in New York City.  It was the headquarters of the city's Democratic Party.  It has come to symbolize the kind of corruption which results from filling government jobs based on political patronage.  As you will see below, Republicans are just as adept as Democrats at playing the patronage game.
I work for the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development in a unit that keeps track of the economy.  We're the guys who come up with things line the unemployment rate as well as something called "Covered Employment Statistics" employment estimates or CES employment estimates for short.  Our shop also produces a myriad of other products such as wage surveys (which provide an indication of what people are paid in various jobs) as well as labor force and population estimates.  Most of our work is funded by the federal government.  The group I work for does something a little different from the rest of the floor.  Rather than churning out statistics,  we get to go out and speak to the people who work in the "one stops", or what were known a few years ago as employment services or job service offices and train the counselors on our products so they can better serve unemployed people in choosing new careers and in selecting job training that will help them become gainfully employed again.  We also work with municipal,county and state officials who need help using and interpreting our statistical products.  Another part of my job involves reading newspapers, riding around in the field to observe business conditions and to keep track of business openings and closings and answering questions from the media and public about the local labor market and economy.

Basically, we're generalists.  In other words, we are the regular guys who get to explain to the rest of the world what products we have available, where to find them and what they are useful for.  We also keep track of the economy in out assigned area and put out newsletters and other publications which explain labor market and demographic trends.  While my official job title is not "economist", that's basically what I do.  I only needed a bachelor's degree to get my job, while while a "research economist" needs an advanced degree.

While the type of work I do basically involves common sense and little in the way of understanding of advanced statistics or detailed economic research, the job still requires a broad level of skills and knowledge as well as interpersonal skills, public speaking and writing ability.  While people who do my job can learn basic skills necessary on the job, such as computer skills, basic economics, statistics and technical writing from school course work, much of what we do can only be learned on the job.  It takes on the average six months for a new worker to develop minimal competence to work independently and about a year or two to get proficient at it.

You can probably guess this is probably not the easiest job in the world to get.  No, you won't see any ads that say "Labor Market Analysts Wanted, No Experience Necessary. Apply today and start tomorrow."   However, the entry requirements are not as steep as you might imagine, at least under Civil Service rules for filling the position.

In the past, if we hired someone off the street, we would go looking for a Labor Market Analyst Trainee or a Labor Market Analyst IV.  Both jobs require at least 20 college credits of economics and three credits each of math and statistics.  The job also requires a bachelor's degree, however work experience in economic research can be substituted for the degree, but not the credits in economics, math and statistics.

No work experience is required for the trainee position.  The Labor Market Analyst IV requires one year of work experience in economic research with writing experience.  The trainee job is a range 17 and starts at about $40,000.  The Labor Market Analyst IV job is a range 19 and starts at about $45,000.

Usually we hired people in the past by posting the position as a promotional opportunity open to employees throughout the labor department.  People who take the job usually come from jobs in disability or unemployment, which hire people off the street.  Oftentimes, people take entry-level jobs working on unemployment or disability claims to get their foot in the door, and the promotion gives them the opportunity to get a more interesting job with the prospect of eventual promotion to higher level positions within our division.

Since the McGrevey years, our shop has been loosing workers.  During the first Whitman administration, there was a hiring freeze and it was difficult to get promoted.  Once she was reelected, the money began to flow like wine.  We were able to fill about three or four slots and had more analysts than we had any time since I started in 1994.  Promotions became common.  Everybody got new computers.  So much for Republican austerity.  Once McGreevey came in, the usual cycle where an incoming governor cries poverty repeated itself and the hiring freeze was re instituted and it was never really taken off.  As people retired, we were able to get replacements for some of the people by raiding other shops on the floor.  We also got a man for the Commerce Commission, which Corzine abolished.  (He abolished the Commission, but not most of the actual jobs or the work that the commission did.   That was transferred to other agencies like ours.)

Well, we recently had a worker retire and needed a new body.  With a good nine years of hiring freezes, the rest of the floor has also been getting a little thin.   My supervisor suggested to the assistant commissioner to hire a trainee because we wouldn't have to worry about finding someone with research and writing experience willing to start at the princely sum of $45,000 per year.

Like I said earlier, my job involves reading newspapers and I get to see the gripes from the public on the letters to the editor page.  Many of those letters go like this.  I am a senior citizen.  I worked hard all my life and all I have to live off of now is Social Security and my investments, which got chewed up by the recession.  I really don't understand why we put up with this expensive civil service system, where you have to lay off workers by seniority (keeping the most expensive older workers on the payroll and letting go the less expensive, but more energetic new people.) and where people get annual pay raises just for warming up the seats of their desks and get pensions when they retire which they keep getting no matter how bad the stock market gets.  I don't know why the governor doesn't run the thing like a private company.  He should be able to hire who he wants without following silly civil service rules with tests and all that nonsense. He should be able to start them at what he wants and give raises on what they are worth rather than just because they stay on the job for a certain amount of time.  And if they want retirement income, they should have to save for it like I did and not get a taxpayer subsidized pension.  I can't afford more property taxes to pay for these deadbeats and goldbrickers."

Well, these grandpas probably think that by bypassing civil service rules the public will be able to hire workers at lower wages, give them less frequent and less generous wages and save the state money.  Of course, this system will insure that raises would be given solely on merit and not seniority.  It would give the government the flexibility to fire incompetent workers at will and trim the fat out of the workforce without too much fuss.

The only problem is it really doesn't work that way in the real world.

Perhaps finding a way around civil service would enable the Motor Vehicle Commission or unemployment office to hire clerks off the street at lower pay.  But on higher level and more desirable positions like in my shop it would probably cost the public more and result in a less fair system of hiring workers.

How do I know this?  Because it has already been done.  We got our new analyst this week.  Except the new person was neither a trainee or labor market analyst 4.  Instead, his title was Government Service Representative.  He was not a civil service employee, but instead is a unclassified employee.  He was hired outside of the civil service system and serves at the pleasure of the governor.  In other words, he can be dismissed on a moment's notice.

We already had an unclassified employee, a graduate student finishing up his schooling who was brought in by the old assistant director under Corzine.  He worked basically as a research economist helping out the director as well as doing some more routine work that our unit now gets.  He was dismissed just before July 1, by someone over at the Economic Development Authority who paid part of his salary.  The dismissal was part of a mass layoff of unclassified workers by Governor Christie as a cost saving measure.

The new guy will also be doing work for the folks on our executive row.  We never filled the director job.  It is now being done by our assistant commissioner who has a PhD in economics.  The new guy will assist him on his research as well as help us out by covering the labor area handled by the person who recently retired.

You may wonder what kind of background the new guy has.  Remember that when we hired career service workers through the civil service system, we normally got people with little experience who would start at less than $50,000 per year.  The new guy worked for several years for Wall Street investment houses, first as a commodities broker then as an analyst.  You've heard of the slogan Trenton Makes, The World Takes."  Well I guess the flip side is "What Wall Street Refuses, Trenton Uses."

To be fair, I haven't worked with the man long enough to know how good he will be on the job.  He's only been there a day.  I know that no matter where we get people, whether they come in from unemployment or disability or we get them from other sections on the floor, it takes a long time to get them trained.  Some people can do the job well, others never get the hang of it.  The new guy has as good a shot of catching on as anybody.

I have several problems though with the way he was hired.  First, since he came in as an unclassified person, his salary his not set by the union contract.  Basically, it can be whatever the people who got him on want it to be.  It is probably north of $70,000 and might even be $90,000.  Since he is new, he is not on the Courier-Post's Data Universe which lists the salaries and titles of all state employees.  No doubt, an analyst from Wall Street will be more expensive than a new hire from the street.  However, at least in his role as an analyst covering a labor area, I doubt he would be able to do the job any better than a new hire or someone we could get from elsewhere on the floor. 

This begs the question, Why hire him?  Here is where the element of unfairness comes in.  At this level, it is highly unlikely he walked into the lobby of the Labor Building and randomly asked for a job application.  More likely, he had connections with someone high up in the state who got him hired.  I believe he was out of work from his Wall Street job for a while before before getting hired.  Lots of names on Christie's donor list have Wall Street connections.  Perhaps the new guy is some out-of-work Republican who needed a job and knew the right people to get him hired.  Kind of like New York in the good old days of Tammany Hall.

Another good question is why not bring back the last unclassified guy that got laid off.  You know, the one that was let go just before July 1.  The new guy is doing some of what he did.  Perhaps the difference is that the old guy was hired by people from Corzine's administration and the new guy was hired by Christie's people.  The decision to fire the old unclassified guy and bring on a new one may have had more to due with political loyalty and personal connections than it with the ability to do the job.  Precisely, just like old Tammany Hall. 

Don't let anyone fool you.  Perhaps Christie's plans to ditch Civil Service in favor of an employment at will policy has more to do with politics than you think.  Perhaps it will bring us back to the good old days when all government employees will have plenty to fear when power changes hands in the governor's mansion.  Because, back in the good old days, people in ordinary non-policy making jobs were regularly replaced with loyalists to the new leader when a new governor or mayor took over.

The civil service system is essential for maintaining a professional non-political workforce.  Dedicated professionals willing and able to work their whole careers for a governmental agency are good for the public.  A professional workforce has the skills and the continuity necessary to provide a consistent level of service to the public.  This is something you will not have if hiring decisions become based on cronyism and political loyalty.

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