NASHVILLE - Departing from long-standing state practice, Gov. Bill Haslam is refusing to grant legislatively mandated pay raises to hundreds of state workers who have been disciplined over the past year.
Tennessee State Employees Association leaders call the move "mean-spirited" and say they are exploring legal action. TSEA officials, however, acknowledge courts might come out with a liberal interpretation and affirm the Republican governor's ability to deny the raises.
The across-the-board pay increases of 1.6 percent for an estimated 42,000 executive branch workers - their first in four years - went into effect July 1.
Most were implemented, but in a June 28 Cabinet meeting, according to a memo written by state Human Resources Commissioner Rebecca Hunter, the governor and top officials excluded employees who have "been demoted, suspended or received more than one written warning in the past year."
That was later changed to two written warnings.
"The policy speaks for itself in that the administration believes the increase should be provided to state employees that are adequately doing their jobs," Haslam spokesman David Smith said when asked about the unannounced policy change.
TSEA Executive Director Robert O'Connell said the new policy changes the rules in the middle of the game and punishes employees twice for the same infraction. He said the group's survey of seven of the state's 22 departments indicates 458 employees have been denied a pay increase.
One Correction Department worker, who was highly praised in a recent evaluation, did not receive a pay increase because she was suspended after refusing to work a double shift following surgery, O'Connell said. Not giving her the pay raise is "pathetic," he said.
"I don't know why they came up with [the policy change]," O'Connell said. "I just feel it's mean-spirited. It's fundamentally unfair."
In a July 5 letter to Haslam, O'Connell and TSEA President Philip Morson emphasized they are not contesting long-standing language in annual appropriations bills that deny across-the-board increases to employees "on the basis of unsatisfactory job performance" as determined by their evaluations. But Morson and O'Connell drew distinctions between "satisfactory performance" and "satisfactory conduct."
"No authority exists for denying the raise based on prior disciplinary action, which is a separate consideration from unsatisfactory work performance," they wrote.
"We are still looking into whether or not there's a legal challenge," O'Connell said. "It doesn't look real encouraging. But we haven't decided."
Responding with his own letter to Morson and O'Connell on Monday, Haslam countered that "we do believe that unacceptable conduct is a good reason for an employee not to receive the raise."
He referred TSEA's additional questions to Human Resources Commissioner Hunter, a former Hamilton County personnel director.
Hunter spokesman John McManus said this year's appropriations bill "broadly states that employees may be denied the salary increase based on poor job performance. In setting the framework for the Salary Administration Plan, the governor's Cabinet unanimously agreed that performance includes discipline and Performance Evaluation scores."
McManus took issue with O'Connell's estimates of 458 employees affected in just seven of the state's departments. In an email, he estimated roughly 2 percent of the state's estimated 42,000 executive branch employees were denied pay raises, which works out to 840 people. Actual totals won't be known until next week, he said.