Ruling lets Tennessee proceed with layoffs

Ruling lets Tennessee proceed with layoffs

June 25th, 2013 by Andy Sher in Local - Breaking News

Gov. Bill Haslam answers a question during a news conference in this file photo.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

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NASHVILLE -- Gov. Bill Haslam is readying plans to lay off about 200 state workers by week's end after a state judge on Monday lifted her temporary injunction on the planned firings.

Ruling from the bench, Circuit Court Judge Amanda McClendon said state officials did not break any laws in their handling of the firings because they had no legal duty to help employees find new jobs within state government.

The judge also found no irreparable harm was done when the state froze hiring for weeks in the midst of a 60-day layoff period in May and June when officials took down their NeoGov online listings for available jobs.

Haslam's legal counsel, Herbert Slatery, later said the administration is "generally pleased" with McClendon's ruling lifting of the temporary restraining order she signed June 10 after the Tennessee State Employees Association and a group of 15 employees filed suit.

The Human Resources Department said the filled positions in eight departments will be "effective and off the books by the end of the week."

The state had intended to lay off some 70 state Labor and Workforce Development employees and others June 18 and 19.

Friday is the last work day for dozens of General Services workers in Chattanooga, Nashville and other parts of the state. The state is outsourcing management and maintenance of all state-owned buildings.

Jones Lang LaSalle, the real estate services firm taking over the oversight of state buildings on July 1, hired only 31 of 126 employees, according to one state filing. Another 10 employees found other positions within state government. Some are retiring.

Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter said in a statement she too was pleased with the ruling and the department "stands ready to assist any affected employees throughout this process and invites them to come back and apply for one of the hundreds of current vacancies in the state service where help is needed now."

Following the hearing, Robert O'Connell, executive director of the state employees association, said "of course we're disappointed."

The group filed suit June 10, charging employees' due process rights were being violated under the administration's own 2012 civil service overhaul because the law required the state to provide job counseling, testing and the chance to apply for job vacancies during the 60-day layoff notice.

The NeoGov jobs-listing site was taken down in early May, days after the initial reduction in force notices went out in late April.

State officials said they froze hiring and took down NeoGov because of the need to rework state salary schedules and the website under new salary adjustments beginning July 1.

Officials also said they provided job listings just before the site was taken down and also helped employees with counseling, providing them information about comparable jobs elsewhere and advice on things like resume writing.

McClendon issued a temporary restraining order to consider the case, held oral arguments June 17 and extended the order until Monday.

The NeoGov site was back online June 19.

O'Connell and TSEA attorney Larry Woods said they took some solace that employees at the least had access to the NeoGov website for five days prior to Monday's hearing.

Some 255 job listings were on the NeoGov site when it came back up, O'Connell said.

"We did win an extra five days" and employees had an opportunity to go online, he added. "We feel really great about that."

A number of employees losing their jobs have worked for the state since the 1970s and early 1980s and some in their 50s or 60s are just a few years or even a few months away from their full 30-year retirement.

State employees said they were entitled to NeoGov access during the full 60-day layoff period. During the June 17 hearing, state attorneys argued that had no basis in law and harm would be done to the state and taxpayers to the tune of $1 million.

McClendon agreed, saying, "It's obvious the state will suffer" if the stay continued.

The state employees' attorney, Woods, also argued the workers had a property interest in their jobs. McClendon also ruled against that as well and said it was unclear whether the plantiffs would prevail in the overall lawsuit.

O'Connell and Woods said given the ruling against them on the temporary injunction, they will need to weigh whether to proceed with the suit.

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