A New Pay System for Wisconsin State Workers

The increased contributions that Wisconsin state employees are now making toward their pension and health care benefits already feel like a pay cut. The required contributions are part of Act 10, the controversial bill whose passage last spring eliminated most collective bargaining rights for state employees.

It's not surprising that a pay plan created without union input — but instead set by the Republican state administration with pending approval by a joint legislative committee — includes a pay freeze for two years. Predictably, it; has not gone over well with the employees. But there are a few surprises in the plan , which the administration sent to the Joint Committee on State Employment Relations on October 25.

Perhaps the most controversial provision is a new system for rewarding strong employee performance. In the past, merit-based pay increases have been awarded by agency managers; under the new system, all merit-based pay would be approved by the Office of State Employment Relations, a centralized agency that answers to the governor.

"The merit-based pay system would be completely dictated by one state agency, the OSER," says Scott Spector, a spokesperson for the AFT-Wisconsin, a labor organization that represents 17,000 state employees. "Their ability to determine who is worthy of a merit-based pay increase for different state agencies encompassing 40,000 workers seems pretty challenging."

Another union leader put it more pointedly in an op-ed that ran in the Wisconsin State Journal last week. "Nothing but blind trust assures that rewards won't be handed out like candy to workers who do favors for big political donors or who pony up for the next campaign," wrote Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union. "Governor Scott Walker doesn't fund his candy jar, so the only way to reward one employee is by taking from others. This, just when we thought state employee morale could not be lower."

The administration says that this is all much ado about nothing: OSER's involvement is intended to be administrative in nature, ensuring that policies are followed consistently. "OSER will not be second-guessing an agency's determination that particular employees be granted [a merit-based increase]," Timothy Lundquist, a spokesman for the Department of Administration, wrote in an email.

Still, Mordecai Lee, a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, argues that Act 10 has left the state with a structural problem on its hands. "You want managerial accountability, but you also want a certain degree of a depoliticized civil service system," Lee says. "I'm not sure the Wisconsin system quite finds that balance." A fair approach, Lee argues, would call for "something other than supervision by the governor's political appointees."

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