State: All New Hires Need OK From Above

This article originally appeared in the Times Argus on February 11, 2015

MONTPELIER — Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson issued an edict to agency and department heads Tuesday that all new hires within the executive branch must be approved by his office.

The move, according to a memo Johnson sent to agency and department heads, is the result of signals from the Vermont State Employees Association that it is not willing to work with the administration on finding $5 million in personnel savings called for in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s budget proposal.

Johnson wrote in his memo that he was “both surprised and disappointed to be approached to sign a VSEA ‘Fight Back’ petition that calls for no cuts in state government spending. The petition indicated that the union will not deal with the administration on labor savings.”

VSEA spokesman Doug Gibson said members are passing out petitions at work sites and to the public asking for signatures in support of their position against further cuts to the state budget.

“We are united, and we are calling on Vermont lawmakers to join us in seeking alternatives to cutting the vital public services that we all rely on every day. We also ask that you respect our collective bargaining agreements, the terms and conditions of which are mutually negotiated and agreed to by state employees and the State,” the petition reads.

Although the VSEA petition does not explicitly state that the union will not work with the administration, Johnson cited it in his memo as the reason for running all hiring decisions through his office.

“We are concerned that the union is saying ‘No’ before we have even have an opportunity to talk. This approach leaves me very concerned that the administration won’t have an opportunity to take steps, in conjunction with the union, to help minimize any jobs losses while meeting a balanced budget,” Johnson wrote.

For now, all vacant positions must be approved by Johnson’s office. Any request to fill a position must include a justification for how the position “fits into department or agency priorities, is critical to the work of the organization, and why it would likely not be a part of any programmatic or staffing cuts going forward if that is where we end up,” according to the memo.

“The requirement applies to all positions across the executive branch — no exceptions,” Johnson wrote.

The restriction applies to vacant positions that are not already in active recruitment, and to all new vacancies that emerge.

Johnson expressed hope Tuesday that the administration and the union can find a way to find personnel savings in the general fund together.

“I’m still confident that we can sit down and talk things out, but I need their help to do that,” he said. “I can’t just go in there crashing around in the contract on my own.”

But VSEA Executive Director Steve Howard was clear Tuesday that the union is unlikely to agree to renegotiating labor contracts.

“Our members are not interested in opening their contract or seeing state employees be (laid off). It’s not in the interests of the state of Vermont,” he said.

Howard said union members want Shumlin to seek new revenue to help balance the state’s budget and are opposed to additional cuts.

“Our members are united behind the idea that the solution to this problem is to ask the wealthiest Vermonters to pay more,” he said. “If he asks millionaires to pay more, our members are all ears.”