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Madison Journal: State employee hiring changes
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Republicans have changed Wisconsin’s 110-year-old civil service law, allowing for faster hiring and firing of state employees.

Gone are exams to test the ability of candidates who apply for state jobs. The Department of Administration, the arm of government closest to the governor’s office, will be in charge of the hiring process. Job seekers will file resumes as they seek state positions.

Gone are seniority bumping rights which have protected longtime workers from losing their jobs in tough economic times. State agencies will decide on who gets the layoff notices. 

Employers can save more money if they lay off longtime workers because those workers usually have higher salaries than employees hired more recently. The new law says the layoffs will be based on “performance” rather than seniority.

The changes will help recruit and retain the “best and brightest,” Gov. Scott Walker said at the bill signing.

There were both skeptics and critics of the new law.

Former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson said he was ‘’reserving judgment’’ on its provisions.  ‘’It’s very important for the state to let a nonpartisan or bipartisan group hire people,’’ he said in a newspaper interview while the bill was being debated in the Legislature.

Thompson, who served as governor for more than 12 years and was known for maintaining open communications with state employee unions, said he, too, has been critical of the time involved in the hiring process under the old law. The old civil service law did a good job of protecting state workers, he said. This has given them “a degree of security and comfort.”

Another skeptic is Dennis Dresang, professor emeritus of public affairs and political science at UW–Madison and founding director of the La Follette School of Public Affairs. Dresang, who led a lengthy bipartisan study of the civil service system in the 1970s, is critical of the new emphasis on resumes in the hiring process.

“People lie on their resumes,” he said.

“If we’re going to rely on resumes, either we’re going to be dealing with a considerable amount of dishonesty or we’re going to have to hire a lot of people to check those resumes  and make sure what people say is actually the case,” Dresang told a Madison newspaper.

Among the critics is Rick Badger, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union.

“State jobs are far less attractive than they were five years ago,” he said, a reference to the time before Walker became governor. There have been widespread retirements, he noted.

“Today the Department of Corrections is clearly close to melting down, but the trouble doesn’t end there,” said Badger. Staffing levels and overtime assignment issues have roiled the state prison system in recent years.

The day Walker signed the civil service change law it was announced the FBI was investigating alleged abuses at the state prison for juveniles in northern Wisconsin. The head of the state prison system submitted his resignation, and Jon Litscher — who served the Thompson administration both as secretary of the former Department of Employment Relations and then Corrections — was called back to state government to serve again as Corrections secretary.

Democrats have been critical of the civil service changes, saying they suspect it will lead to a growth in patronage positions in Wisconsin state government. They fear references on resumes will be more important than skills and experiences.