About two dozen members of the Communications Workers of America visited the Capitol on Wednesday to lobby for better conditions for state employees.
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"They're trying to take away the Merit System, which is really important for state employees," said Natashia Pickens, a Family Support Division eligibility specialist in St. Louis County and CWA Local 6355's president.
"They want to make everyone at-will employees."
In their news release announcing Wednesday's visit, the union pointed to state Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, for "pushing legislation to eliminate Merit System rules that have protected state workers from corrupt employment practices since the 1970s."
Kehoe sponsors Senate Bill 1007, which proposes numerous changes to the nearly 45-year-old Merit System.
The bill has been endorsed by a Senate committee but has yet to be sent to the floor for full debate.
He said his bill is needed because "our modern economy, employment practices, and the competitive nature of the workforce are radically different from the 1970s. Prospective state employees are likely pursuing multiple potential job opportunities, both within and outside state government.
"If they are the well-qualified employees the state seeks, they will likely have multiple job offers from which to choose."
Pickens said Kehoe's bill would remove discrimination protections that are now part of state law.
"We want to make sure that we're heard on that, and that we want the Merit System to stay in place," she said of the lobbying effort.
Kehoe said, "In our competitive, modern global economy, it is critical for state government to be able to get the best people for every job and have the flexibility to promote them based upon their expertise and their performance.
"This flexibility is very difficult within the constraints of the merit system and is frustrating for both employees and managers who wants to put good people in the right spots."
The Office of Administration's explanation of the Merit System, found at oa.mo.gov/personnel/job-applicants/missouri-merit-system, says it is "designed to protect employees from arbitrary actions, personal favoritism, and political coercion (and) provides a competitive examination process for recruitment and retention of a qualified workforce, and governs the appointment, promotion, transfer, layoff, removal and discipline of employees."
However, Kehoe said, "Missourians rightly demand that their state government be as effective and efficient as possible, and there is no greater inhibition to effectiveness and efficiency than the current merit system."
Pickens said part of the union's lobbying activity would be reminding lawmakers that state employees are "definitely underpaid — we're 50 out of 50 in the United States, as far as pay."
Kehoe has served on a special legislative committee that's looked at state employees' pay and benefits, and said his proposed law "is a critical step to improving pay for state employees and ensuring that employees are recognized and rewarded based upon their performance."
During his Jan. 10 State of the State address, Gov. Eric Greitens said: "We need to reform state workforce laws that are decades old.
"Today, government can't move people to where they will help the most, can't reward people for good work, and unlike a business, it can't get rid of poor performers who fail our citizens and fail their colleagues."
However, Pickens said Wednesday, "That's an absolute lie. They do have a system in place where they can get rid of people who are not doing the work of the state.
"They have to give them just cause and explain to them what's going on, give them an opportunity to improve — and if they don't improve and, if they do not improve, they do have every right to terminate that employee."
She said she wasn't sure how successful lobbying efforts would be since "the Republican Party has been adamant that they want to get rid of unions."
Still, Pickens thinks Missourians should "get behind the union, support working people and working families, make sure we're paid fairly and make sure that we have systems in place that will prohibit — or at least eliminate — discriminatory practices."