Davidson County judge blocks Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to lay off state workers

Davidson County judge blocks Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to lay off state workers

June 11th, 2013 by Andy Sher in Local Regional News

Bill Haslam

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to lay off more than 200 state workers this month struck a pothole late Monday afternoon when a Davidson County judge issued a temporary restraining order after state employees filed suit.

The suit charges top state officials violated provisions in law surrounding a 60-day notice for affected employees.

Circuit Court Judge Amanda McClendon granted employees' request for a restraining order and has scheduled a hearing for this coming Monday in the case, said attorney Larry Woods, who is representing the Tennessee State Employees Association and a group of individual state workers, including several from Hamilton County.

TSEA Executive Director Robert O'Connell said the suit was filed with "great reluctance" after last-minute meetings with state officials, including Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter, failed to produce results.

Contacted Monday night, Haslam Communications Director Alexia Poe said by email "it wouldn't be appropriate for us to comment on potential/pending litigation."

While the state provided the notices throughout April, officials did not comply with a section that says soon-to-be-fired employees be given "career counseling, job testing, and placement efforts," the suit says.

That's because the state's Department of Human Resources on May 9 took down the agency's Neogov online service that employees must use to find job openings and apply for them, according to state employees.

Hiring is now frozen and the site doesn't come back up until June 19 -- a day after 72 state Labor and Workforce Development workers are slated to lose their jobs following notices provided April 19.

Another 126 employees in the Department of General Services were given notice on April 25 that they were losing their jobs on June 28. The state is outsourcing management and maintenance of state office buildings to Chicago-based Jones Lang LaSalle, a real estate services firm.

Woods said the suit seeks to enjoin the Haslam administration from dismissing or terminating any state employees in the current reduction-in-force actions "unless they receive 60 days of career counseling, job testing and placement" services.

The suit says Haslam, Hunter, who is a former Hamilton County personnel director, and other state officials are running afoul of protections lawmakers inserted in Haslam's own 2012 civil service overhaul.

The state employees' group initially opposed the legislation, saying it would wreck protections and open the way to political patronage. But TSEA's O'Connell said the group accepted the bill after lawmakers inserted protections including the 60-day notice and the chance to move elsewhere within state government.

But O'Connell as well as several state employees have told the Times Free Press in recent days no such assistance is being provided because of the Neogov site being taken offline by Hunter's department.

"We don't like to sue the state," O'Connell said. "It was only because we weren't getting anywhere."

Woods said "we made the point that you can't expect hundreds of people in shock from losing their decades-old jobs" to move quickly, he said.

Hunter's spokesman, John McManus, said last week in response to inquiries that officials took down the site to make long-planned "adjustments."

"In preparation, advanced notice of the suspension was provided and the department posted on our website 699 available jobs open for hire," he said in an email.

"All employees affected by reductions in force due to budget cuts were given notice far in advance and offered information on how to apply for another job. In the month prior to the system lockdown, the Department of Human Resources received and processed over 40,000 applications for employment."

He said any employee affected by a reduction in force "will still be guaranteed a priority interview for another year should they choose to apply for another position in state government. The department works closely with affected employees to provide job placement and career counseling and we plan to continue this service."

The suit seeks a permanent injunction in a final judgment barring layoffs without notice and hearing as well as "without concurrently listing open state jobs that said employees may apply for and seek and without providing counseling, placement and testing for said employees" as required for the 60-day period.

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