Wisconsin Public Employees Challenge New Employment Policies

The contentious stripping of union rights for almost all public employees in Wisconsin in 2011 has given rise to new disciplinary rules.  Government workers call the rules unfair, but the state governments creating the rules say that writing new ones after union contracts that have been bargained for over fifty years is difficult.  Some counties propose “at will” employment that allows the employees to be fired for just about any reason at all.  Government workers argue that these relaxed rules encourage bias and corruption, and allow their employers to fire them for arbitrary reasons where the system of discipline previously bargained-for protected them.

Across Wisconsin, several non-protective employment policies have been proposed.  One policy requires disciplined employees to pay $400 to appeal the disciplinary employment action, and another requires that an employee hire an attorney to fight such a charge.  When the local elected body makes the final decision about the disciplinary action against an employee, some new rules exclude many facts that would otherwise be favorable to the employee from being included in the consideration by the decision-maker.  Other employee advocates lament that “impartial” hearing officers are often retired or current administrators and are not neutral third parties at all.

Last Tuesday, March 11, Jefferson County officials enacted a “just cause” policy for discipline, including a system of progressive discipline, where the disciplinary action is supposed to match the degree of the infraction.  Under this policy, the employer has to point to a specific transgression by an employee and apply a proper disciplinary action that matches the degree of the misconduct.  Though seemingly fair, the policy is less protective to employees than the expired collective bargaining agreement that previously existed.  The new policy allows an employer to immediately fire an employee in the case that the employee breaks the law or poses a danger to other workers, regardless of the situation that that conduct occurs.

Officials in Columbia County drafted their employment policy in a closed setting, fearing that negotiating with employees would be an endless, futile endeavor where employees would hem and haw over each word.  Employees are challenging the secretive drafting as violating Open Meeting laws in the state.

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