Waste Watch: Reforming the state merit system could save big bucks

If you work for Oklahoma you are either a classified employee or unclassified. Put simply, unclassified employees can be hired and fired at will and classified employees are subject to the rules of the state's merit protection system. However it is becoming more common for classified employees to share the same job titles and duties as unclassified employees. But those jobs are rarely equal.

"It really kills morale a lot of places you have classified positions doing the same thing as unclassified positions and like you said you've got people making different salaries," said Sterling Zearley, the head of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.

Zearley says the merit system is broken and the rise in unclassified employees is risky business. "The problem we have is currently the unclassified system we have is just ripe for corruption," Zearley told Fox 25.

"The state's merit system has become outdated the hiring process is cumbersome, the discharge process and discipline process takes too long," said Lucinda Meltabarger, the administrator for the state's Human Capital Management Division.

Reforming the merit system is one of those rare instances where labor and management agree. The system Oklahoma has was set up decades ago and designed to prevent against political patronage and stop employees from having their job security rest on politics. The only problem with that is it is not working.

"During the time of ghost employees during the time of a lot of cronyism was during the era of merit protection," said Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Mark Costello, "And you don't have to delve too far back in state history to see that."

Costello would like to see the merit system replaced with an administrative system. "At the end of the day, in order to pay state employees more, we need to change the culture," Costello said, "We need to go away from a judicial lawyer up system, which we presently have to an administrative system."

"It happened and it still happens today where you had legislators and or other officials try to get involved in the hiring or disciplinary procedure or try to influence a decision made by an employee," Zearley said. He says the very things that everyone agrees are bad are happening and the rise in unclassified employees as a workaround solution to the broken system is only making things worse.

"You just saw back in December the secretary of education going out hired several employees, unclassified, prior to her going out," Zearley pointed out.

As a general rule unclassified employees make more money. Take for instance the job title "Secretary II." According to the state, it is the most common job title of any state employee. "They [secretary II positions] make between $19,000 and $63,000 a year there is no standard job description there is no guarantee those are actually the duties they are doing and there is no way...the taxpayer knows what those jobs are," Meltabarger said.

So if labor and management agree, what is holding up a change to the system?

"It's not easy because of politics," Costello said, "It's not easy because somebody thinks someone will take advantage."

Though Costello and Zearley agree modernizing the system will save the state money and could likely result in the ability to give state employees a raise.

There is pending legislation introduced Monday that would rewrite the rules for the merit system. It is backed by the OPEA, which they believe is a start to bringing Oklahoma in alignment with other states who have made similar reforms and benefited from the savings.

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