Wisconsin officials look to streamline civil hires

Wisconsin State Capitol
Wisconsin State Capitol (file photo)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – Gov. Scott Walker’s administration is looking at ways to speed hiring for state civil service jobs, sparking a new round of suspicion among union leaders still reeling from the governor’s push to strip most public workers of nearly all their union rights.

Most state positions are civil service jobs. Unlike political appointees, those workers are supposed to be chosen strictly on merit rather than party ties and they can’t be fired without cause. They go through an extensive hiring process that can include multiple exams and interviews.

The process can sometimes take as long as four months, and many qualified applicants find jobs elsewhere before it’s completed, Department of Administration spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said. She said the situation could lead to a vacuum in state government within a couple of years as more state workers retire, citing a 2007 Office of State Employment Relations report that found that by the end of 2015, nearly 40 percent of state civil service employees will be eligible for retirement.

DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch has started querying other state agencies to better understand why the process takes so long and to field suggestions on how to speed it up. He hopes to present ideas to OSER as possible changes to its hiring handbook, Marquis said.

“Nothing’s been decided. Nothing’s been determined,” she said. “We’re finding out from the agencies (about) the issues.”

Walker, a Republican, outraged the unions in 2011 by signing a law that stripped most public workers of their collective bargaining rights and did away with automatic union dues withdrawals.

Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, said he thinks the administration really wants to overhaul the civil service application process. He’s afraid the administration wants to make civil servants at-will employees, which means they can be fired without cause, and make it easier to hire political cronies.

He said agencies can make the hiring process as long or short as they want and blasted the administration for not reaching out to union leaders about the changes.

“When was the last you believed what DOA told you?” Beil said. “They’re not talking to anybody who represents workers. They’re just unilaterally deciding what’s best for workers. What they’re saying is they want to change the hiring process, which makes it easier to hire, which means there’s more patronage.”

DOA emails show Huebsch asked Tennessee’s state human resources commissioner in April for the highlights of extensive revisions legislators made to that state’s civil service hiring and retention practices in a 2012 law.

The changes included shortening the length of time jobs are posted from two weeks to one week; extending workers’ probationary period from at least six months to at least a year; shortening advance notice of layoffs or furloughs from 90 days to 30.

Marquis said fears that the administration wants to tear up Wisconsin’s process are unfounded. Huebsch simply wanted to see if he could spot any ideas on streamlining from Tennessee, she said.

Walker, who is running for re-election, isn’t involved in the review and has no interest in changing civil servants’ protections, she added.

“Nobody here wants to be hiring based on patronage,” Marquis said. “We’re not talking about changing a system. (But) I don’t think that you find state employees who would say the hiring and recruitment process is perfect. I’ve worked in state government for 11 years. I haven’t found one person who says (the steps) are great.”

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