Civil Service Reform is Key to Progressive City Budget

by Randy Shaw on January 24, 2005

The corporate-backed Committee on Jobs is making civil service reform a top priority in 2005. The business community hopes such reforms will raise enough revenue so as to make a future business tax unnecessary. But with the city effectively barred from raising taxes until November 2006, it is progressives committed to retaining city jobs and nonprofit programs who must seek savings in city personnel practices. Progressives should not allow the business community to hijack the civil service reform issue.

For nearly two decades, the city has done little to change its widely criticized personnel practices. A mayoral aide once told me that people do not run for mayor so they can get caught up in the detailed machinations of city hiring practices; after all, one of the prerogatives enjoyed by all mayors is putting some of their political backers on the city payroll.

But the combination of the city budget deficit and the restrictions of Prop 218—which prevent a tax increase measure from appearing sooner than November 2006 without the unanimous approval of the Supervisors— have forced progressives to address civil service reform this year. The limitations on revenue increases for the 2005-06 budget mean that either money is saved through reform, or city programs are cut and workers laid off in July.

Let’s start with the most obvious reforms.

First, the city’s current practice of granting lifetime health benefits to those who work for the city for only five years is almost too irrational to be believed. The policy means that someone can work for the city from ages 23-28, leave, and still be connected to city benefit programs at age 70.

The logic of this policy escapes me. It certainly does not boost unions, as we’re talking about providing benefits to workers who have left city unions. It could fulfill the city’s policy of providing universal health care to residents—but that policy only currently applies to children, and the five-year rule applies even if the employee never lived in San Francisco.

The only conceivable reason for such a generous policy is as an incentive for people to join the city’s workforce. But that incentive is not only not necessary, but foolishly encourages workers to leave city employment after only five years.

There is nothing “progressive” about the five- year policy, and it should be promptly eliminated either legislatively, if possible, or by a charter amendment on the November 2005 ballot. Our state government provides lifetime health benefits after twenty years, which seems like a good alternative to the city’s current practice.

I do not know how much money San Francisco will save by extending health care eligibility to twenty years, but maintaining the five-year rule squanders desperately needed public sector funds. Now that the five-year period has become an issue, its perpetuation could also make future tax increases next to impossible to pass.

That’s what we saw in Berkeley last November, where voters with a history of supporting revenue increases turned down three tax measures after opponents focused on the city’s easy eligibility for lifetime health benefits. This was not the only argument made against the tax proposals, but it was the first time it was raised against tax measures and proved effective.

A second necessary reform is reducing the amount of vacation time city employees can accrue. Currently, an employee can accrue up to 400 hours of vacation time, though employees whose tenure began in the 1980’s or earlier can still accrue up to 1000 hours.

The problem with allowing employees to accrue ten weeks vacation is that when they leave their job, their supervisor faces an untenable choice between leaving the position unfilled for the entire period or hiring someone and paying twice for the same position. In light of the city’s hiring freeze, the latter may not even be an option, which means that potentially key positions in the city workforce can go unfilled for two and one-half months.

What is progressive about allowing employees to accrue ten weeks of paid vacation? Vacation time is necessary for recharging one’s batteries and makes for a more effective workforce. An employee who goes years without taking a vacation is weakening their own job performance, and the city should not reward such conduct.

The vast majority of city employees use their vacation time, so restricting the 400 hours to 120 hours (three weeks, which is used by my organization and is common to many others) or even to 160 hours will impact only a minority. But at a time of declining funding for public services, our city cannot afford to pay people over 20 per cent of their annual salary for not working..

Oakland and Berkeley both had to deal with employee vacation accrual problems by closing down public buildings one day a month. Progressives must act now to ensure San Francisco does not proceed even further down this path.

A third reform would target a civil service practice that discriminates against women, particularly those of color.. The cause of this discrimination is the infrequency of offering exams for many civil service positions, which leaves a disproportionate number of women working for years in a higher classification while being paid for a lower one.

Here’s how it works. A job becomes vacant and the supervisor turns to someone already on staff to do the position “temporarily.” These temporary jobs can go on for years, either because there is no money to hire a permanent replacement or because the supervisor wants to hire the temporary worker but must wait until she can take the qualifying exam.

While the temporary worker waits for the exam, she is paid the same salary as if she had remained in her former position.

I do not know the citywide breakdown of out-of -classification workers but at the Department of Building Inspection the vast majority impacted by delays in exams were women and there is no reason to think the same is not true in other city departments.

Local 21, which represents engineers, planners, architects, housing inspectors and other technical employees has been trying to address this exam problem for years. It is my understanding that some improvement is being made under the current Civil Service Commission leadership (and someone please correct me if I’m wrong about this), but why not a measure mandating that exams be given with a certain frequency? The measure could also say that failure to comply with the time limits would allow the Department to unilaterally give their own exam without Civil Service approval.

These are just a few ideas. There are many progressive people far more knowledgeable on civil service reform than me, and they should begin circulating their proposals. These should be evaluated on their merits, and not disqualified because they might also be supported by the Committee on Jobs.

Chanting “No Cuts” does not constitute a serious strategy for addressing the city’s budget crisis. Nor can we do anything prior to November 2006 to “make downtown pay its fair share.”

Progressives must get creative on budget issues, and not let the anti-public sector Committee on Jobs control the debate on civil service reform.

(Tomorrow: How the Oscar nominations reflect American’s drift rightward)

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