Next Tuesday, a security officer in the Jefferson County Roads and Transportation Department will take over the secretarial duties of an office administrator. Two construction equipment operators will find themselves in similar paper-pushing jobs, and a county arborist will then be an accounting assistant. If that sounds absurd, many county officials would agree with you, and save the jokes about money growing on trees.
The abrupt and disruptive staffing changes are the result of a Jefferson County Personnel Board policy known as bumping and rifting. While furloughs have left the county shorthanded and layoffs will to make some of those cuts permanent, bumping and rifting is mucking up the bureaucratic machine even further, shuffling county employees among unfamiliar jobs with no transition and little training. On Friday one person might be at a particular desk and someone different could be at that desk when county workers return from Memorial Day weekend.
“I’ve been here for 32 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Roads and Transportation Director Wayne Sullivan said Monday.
Since January, Jefferson County has plodded through the process of laying off 70 employees. Unlike the private sector, this is not a simple matter of giving redundant employees pink slips and sending them home. Personnel board rules guide the process, and those rules are making life hell for county officials.
Like most bureaucratic red tape, the personnel board rules have their purpose. Those rules were put in place to prevent political bosses from handing out patronage jobs. They were meant as a cure to the cronyism, nepotism and racism that were once rampant at all levels of government. But rules and regulations have a way of backfiring. Something that was meant to make government better is now exacerbating the calamity at the county courthouse.
It’s important to point out that the personnel board, which manages the merit system of the county and 18 municipalities, is not a part of the county government itself, and the commission has no control over it.
When the county has an open position, the personnel board advertises the opening and applicants take standardized tests to prove their qualifications. (Keep this part in the back of your head. It will be important in a minute.) From the pool of applicants who take the tests, the personnel board makes lists of qualified applicants from which the county can hire. This process itself has been a bane to county and city governments in the personnel board system, with some positions taking months to fill, but the pains of hiring employees is nothing compared to firing them.
When laying off employees, the county does not fire individuals, but rather, eliminates positions. The employees in those position can then invoke their “bumping rights,” beginning a game of musical chairs in which sometimes well-qualified and experienced people lose their jobs and other employees, some with very different skills and job experience, replace them.
When an employee invokes his or her bumping rights, the personnel board goes back to its files to determine that person’s qualifications. If an employee’s board-determined qualifications match the minimum qualifications of job below him or her in the county hierarchy, and if that person has more years with the county than the employee who already holds that job, then the senior employee can “bump” the junior one, who is “rifted.”
The junior rifted employee then becomes the bumper, and the process begins all over again. This continues until no one is left to bump, or until county employees say to heck with it and find a job in the private sector.
To make matters worse, there’s no transitionary period and no training to speak of. On Friday, May 25, one person will be sitting at a desk, and on Tuesday, May 29, another person will sit there, not even having been told where to find the envelopes and copy paper. The personnel board then requires the county to train the employee for the new position, but in many cases the only person who knows how to train someone for the position is the one who was shown the door the previous Friday.
When the bumping and rifting process runs its course, it will not only leave the county with fewer employees due to layoffs, but also many more who are new to jobs unfamiliar to them.
Or to put it another way, if this is your month to get your car tag, don’t go on Tuesday.
Unfortunately, the absurdity doesn’t end there.
In at least three instances, bumping employees have seen their new jobs and chose instead to quit, county officials said. When that happens the rifted employees should simply return to their old desks. Right? No harm, no foul?
Of course not. Instead, the bumped employees still have to return to the personnel board’s pool and the next senior person with minimum qualifications can take a crack at the job.
County officials are hesitant to talk on the record about the problems bumping and rifting is causing. For decades, the county has been under a federal consent decree to establish a fair and equitable personnel system, but it has failed to satisfy the court that it has done all it can. In September, County Manager Tony Petelos will appear before United States District Judge Lynwood Smith to defend the county on a contempt of court charge. Once again, county officials will find themselves in court, even though this time they did nothing wrong.
At the Jefferson County courthouse, commissioners have lied, cheated and stolen, and the feds sent many of them to prison. But the castrophe continues, not because the current commission has broken the law, but because it must abide by it.
Because in Jefferson County, the law of unintended consequences is the only one that can’t be broken.
The Messenger Shoots Back is a column about political culture. Write to email@example.com