published Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

Judge grants week extension to delay of state layoffs

  • photo
    Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam answers a question during a news conference after speaking to a joint session of the Legislature in Nashville.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE — Dozens of state employees who faced being fired this week by Gov. Bill Haslam will hold on to their jobs until at least next week after a Nashville judge on Monday granted a one-week extension of her temporary restraining order.

Circuit Court Judge Amanda McClendon said she was not ready to render a decision in the challenge brought by the Tennessee State Employees Association last week but expects to rule on the case this coming Monday.

The move came after 90 minutes of spirited arguments and a flurry of court filings by attorneys for the state employees group and the Tennessee Attorney General's Office over whether the Haslam administration did or didn't violate state law in the layoff process.

State employees' attorney Larry Woods argued administration officials didn't follow state law in plans to lay off more than 200 workers because they froze hiring for other positions during the 60-day notice period and on May 9 shut down the state's NeoGov website, which lists available state job openings.

That was 20 days into the layoff notice for dozens of employees and about a week into it for more than 100 others. It will be back online Wednesday.

That's too late for some workers whose jobs end today or Wednesday, according to the state employees' group.

Woods said the 2012 Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management Act requires job counseling and opportunities to find other jobs within state government during the entire 60-day period.

But Leslie Bridges, senior counsel in the state attorney general's office, countered the issue "really boils down" to whether the state even has to have job openings and said "the answer is no."

The NeoGov website, Bridges said, had to be taken down and hiring frozen while new salary schedules were implemented in the state's Edison payroll system for 37,000 employees.

"There is no new hiring for any state employee," she said.

Bridges also said the administration offered other services to employees such as retirement counseling and tuition assistance.

Because the state is eliminating the jobs of workers, Bridges told McClendon, an adverse decision will cost taxpayers to the tune of about $1 million.

"The state's going to have to pay the plaintiffs for jobs that don't exist," she said. "That is the very definition of waste."

Affected workers include about 70 in the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, who were given notice April 19, and 126 workers in General Services, where building management is being outsourced. That contract starts July 1.

Workers in several other departments are affected, as well.

Woods, meanwhile, is laying the groundwork for a possible additional lawsuit, arguing the state violated employees' due process protections amid other requirements.

With the exception of the General Services employees, workers weren't told why they had been selected for layoffs, he said.

"The statute says you're supposed to be given reason," he said.

Employees are supposed to be laid off on the basis of seniority, ability and disciplinary record, he said. But workers were given no chance to argue why they shouldn't be fired, he added.

Bridges said other court rulings have found no due process rights for government employees.

While Bridges cited the technical difficulties of matching up the Edison system and NeoGov, Woods questioned why one of the employee plaintiffs in the suit did manage to get another state job.

"It works when they want it to," Woods scoffed.

Bridges, meanwhile, questioned whether McClendon even has authority to take up the case, arguing findings could end up expanding the state law passed by the General Assembly.

Following the hearing, Woods said keeping the temporary injunction in place means no employees can be fired for "at least another week and we hope another 40 days."

State Attorney General Robert Cooper's office had no comment.

Both Woods and Robert O'Connell said what workers want is the ability to use the NeoGov site for the full 60 days. In most cases, that would leave them on the payroll for about 40 days longer.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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