PHOENIX – Dismissing incompetent or disruptive government employees in Arizona has become a nightmare of paperwork and delay. Workers can be placed on leave for months at a time – getting paid their full salaries but not required to do their jobs – while administrative investigations drag on.
A Goldwater Institute investigation has found that over a two-year period, Arizona state agencies put employees under investigation on paid leave for a combined 100,000 hours – the equivalent of 48 years of full-time work.
“Much like the infamous ‘rubber rooms’ for New York City school teachers, governments in Arizona repeatedly tell employees to sit idly and collect paychecks while the wheels of bureaucracy turn very slowly,” said Darcy Olsen, president and CEO of the Goldwater Institute.
For example, an assistant attorney general was paid nearly $68,000 while on leave during an investigation for writing a hostile letter to a judge. The lawyer eventually was allowed to retire to resolve the case.
The report also shows employees are typically given many chances to fix improper behavior. In one instance, a city employee in Phoenix was finally dismissed in 2009 for incompetence, insubordination, damaging city property and falsifying documents. In the prior four years, the city employee had been disciplined 16 times for infractions that included drug use, sleeping on the job, inappropriate conduct and poor attendance.
Even when workers finally are terminated, they can appeal to independent review boards and the courts, which frequently order employees back to work. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality tried for six years to fire one supervisor who had a romantic relationship with a subordinate, and then lied about it when questioned by his managers. The Arizona Court of Appeals twice ordered him reinstated because the agency cited the wrong section of the personnel code when it fired him in 2004.
Goldwater Institute Investigative Reporter Mark Flatten reviewed more than 600 disciplinary records from state agencies, the City of Phoenix, and Tucson Unified School District, to compare different levels of government and geographic locations. His research reveals a variety of concerns including:
• More than one of every three hours of paid leave for state employees under investigation came from a single agency, the Department of Economic Security.
• Employees are frequently on paid leave far longer than their eventual punishment. A Phoenix police officer was placed on leave for eight months while the city investigated a heated argument with his lieutenant. When the investigation was done, the officer ended up with a one-day suspension.
• The Tucson Unified School District didn’t fire a single teacher out of 84 disciplinary cases reviewed. Instead, the school district focused on written reprimands and getting teachers to voluntarily resign. District officials complained about the complexity of disciplinary rules outlined in the district’s contract with the local teachers union.
Mr. Flatten reports that his investigation already has prompted government agencies to change some procedures to better track, and possibly reduce, the use of paid administrative leave. But Goldwater Institute economist Byron Schlomach offers several additional suggestions to end the waste of tax dollars:
• Change the status of all government employees to at-will employment. A department or agency administrator would make the final decision to discipline or dismiss individual employees, while hurdles to taking action imposed by civil services rules or union contracts would be eliminated. Former employees fired for improper reasons still would be allowed to sue and prove to a court they were mistreated. Florida, Georgia, and Texas have successfully adopted at-will employment policies.
• Strictly limit paid administrative leave to 30 days or less. Overuse of paid leave slows down disciplinary investigations as managers have a lack of urgency to bring the issues to a conclusion. A strict limit will prompt managers to return performing employees to their jobs and to quickly remove problem workers from the payroll.
• Establish a few simple, objective, and measureable standards for employee performance. Such standards would provide clear guidance to determine the quality of an employee’s work and would prevent arbitrary decisions by a supervisor to punish or fire someone.
• Strengthen Arizona’s whistleblower law. It is already illegal in Arizona to retaliate against an employee whistleblower who reports wrongdoing within a government agency, and employees can be paid for their losses if this occurs. But the potential fine against managers who punish a whistleblower should be raised substantially from the current maximum of $5,000 to encourage compliance with the law.
• Document personnel actions by supervisors as well as employees and make the records easily available. Actions that supervisors take against their employees should be documented in the supervisors’ own personnel files and made publicly available so management decision patterns can be tracked by employees and investigators. Proper recording and transparency will encourage managers to treat employees responsibly.
“Everyone wants government to be effective,” Ms. Olsen said. “That means our government must be able to easily replace poorly performing employees with people who are ready to work hard for taxpayers.”
Click here to read “Undisciplined Bureaucracy: Civil Service Job Protections Make Disciplining a Problem Government Employee Complicated, Costly, and Time Consuming.”
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