Arizona state workers union: Members not likely to take retention stipend

June 21, 2012

The state’s workforce could look a little different this fall. Arizona lawmakers this year approved one of Governor Jan Brewer’s top priorities – personnel reform. One of her main goals is to make more state workers at-will, which she says will make it easier to reward good employees, and fire bad ones. And, as KJZZ’s Mark Brodie reports from Phoenix, one of the changes will give many state workers something to think about.

MARK BRODIE: The governor wants state workers to give up their merit protections. And, as an enticement, she proposed a 5 percent pay raise for many of them. But, the legislature decided to turn that permanent pay raise into a one-year stipend.

JUSTIN OLSON: Would the employees have preferred a permanent pay raise over a one-year budget? Absolutely.

BRODIE: Republican State Representative Justin Olson of Mesa shepherded the personnel reform bill through the legislature.

OLSON: But, given the current circumstances, we need to prepare for the future, so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the recent past, when we created the worst budget deficit in recent history.

BRODIE: The state Department of Administration says more than 15,000 state workers will automatically become uncovered, and get the stipend. Another 20,700 will have the choice to either take the money, or keep their covered status. Governor Brewer says it was her intention to make it a permanent pay raise -- but still expects state workers to take the one-time bonus.

JAN BREWER: I would assume that if they’re forward thinking, and they want to do what’s probably best for them and their families, that the majority of them would welcome that opportunity.

SHERI VAN HORSEN: The majority of our members say, ‘no.’ And, they have words that are not too kind for the governor. I mean, they really say it’s a bribe.

BRODIE: Sheri Van Horsen heads the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. It represents about a thousand state workers. She says her members are worried giving up their rights will make it easier for them to be fired. And, she says since the stipend would only last for nine months of the fiscal year, it’s really more like a 3 percent bonus.

VAN HORSEN: Most of them know on their own that that 3 percent is only going to recoup them a couple hundred dollars over a nine-month period, and that’s not worth their protection on the job.

BRODIE: Van Horsen says if state workers had been offered the permanent 5 percent pay raise the governor had originally proposed, some likely would have taken that deal. But, she predicts the majority of her members will tell the state ‘thanks, but no thanks’ on the one-year stipend. The state estimates a quarter of those workers who are eligible to choose the stipend will take it. Again, Representative Justin Olson.

OLSON: I think that most employees are going to do what is in their best interests. They’re going to look at this bonus and say, ‘Now, that makes sense to me. I want to go and perform and do my best in my position,’ and they’re going to accept that bonus that comes with that.

BRODIE: But Sheri Van Horsen says they might not even have that chance. She says her union is considering a lawsuit to stop the personnel changes, including the stipend.

VAN HORSEN: Our members would like us to go forward with the lawsuit, they’d like to see this enjoined and they’d like to see us come back next year in the legislative session and try to either get it rescinded or make some significant changes.

BRODIE: And, Van Horsen might have a chance to do that herself -- she’s running as a Democrat for a West Valley state House seat. She acknowledges a decision on a possible lawsuit has to come quickly. Workers who accept the retention stipend would start seeing the extra cash at the end of September. And, Governor Brewer says she plans to push to continue the stipend program beyond the end of the next fiscal year.