State’s Act 10 has necessitated new management skills

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Sunday, April 15, 2012
— Most of the focus on the effects of Act 10 has been on public employees.

It's presenting new challenges for public-sector managers, too, who for the first time in their careers are managing employees without the guidance and restrictions of union contracts.

"I won't say managers are now going to have to learn how to manage because that would imply they weren't doing their job before Act 10, and that's not the case," said Walworth County Administrator Dave Bretl.

"But since Act 10, management practices have had to change, and that change is new to many managers and supervisors."

The sweeping changes to collective bargaining proposed by Gov. Scott Walker made historic changes in labor-management relations for public sector employers and their union employees. Even if those unions choose to recertify each year, most work issues are no longer on the bargaining table.

Unions can continue to bargain for higher wages but only to the level of cost of living increases. Grievances, overtime, pensions, health care insurance, outsourcing and most work conditions are no longer subject to bargaining.

The effect on employees is obvious. For many, the new law meant a pay cut with less say in their work environment. Walker argues that the law gives public employers new tools to cut costs and prevent layoffs.

While the debate about the effects of Act 10 continues, there's been little discussion about how the new law affects public employers.

Larry Price, a veteran Walworth County employee and now the director of operations at the Department of Public Works, is an example of how public-sector managers face a different environment.

Before Act 10, the department had employees belonging to two locals of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. Local 1925 represented drivers and mechanics, and Local 1925B represented custodians and clerical workers.

Following Act 10, neither local recertified.

"Things in Madison happened so quickly, and there was a lot of uncertainty," Price said. "The union employees were not happy, but there were no work actions or anything like that."

For the most part, the former union employees agreed to look at working for the county in the long run, Price said.

"I encouraged our employees to keep their eyes on the big picture," Price said. "We all agree that Walworth County is a great employer and a great organization to work for. We looked for ways to work within the new law."

'Management challenges'

Like many municipalities, Walworth County relies on an employee handbook to replace union contracts. The handbooks contain language from the contracts with one significant difference—at will employment replaces just cause.

"Yes, we are now an at-will employer, but that doesn't mean we can just go around firing people for no reason," said Walworth County Board Chairman Nancy Russell. "We believe in treating people fairly. We have always believed that, and we will continue to."

Another major change in employment at Walworth County is the introduction of pay for performance at all levels. Unlike many municipalities, Walworth County had in place a pay for performance system long before Act 10, but it applied only to management employees.

"We are now faced with implementing pay for performance at all levels," Bretl said. "That's one of our management challenges."

The change has created a tiered system similar to what's happening in the auto industry. Veteran employees retain their high pay created by union contracts while new hires working alongside them are brought in at reduced pay and benefits.

"This can cause some issues when you have people working at the same job receiving different levels of pay and benefits," Bretl said. "We made the decision not to reduce pay, and we will work to even pay ranges out over time."

Pay for performance was initiated for Walworth County managers in 2006 based on an employee assessment with five performance categories—high, solid, average, below average and not meeting expectations.

The changes after Act 10 were not met with universal opposition, said Suzi Hagstrom, Walworth County labor/employee relations director.

"We surveyed our employees and found that many of them welcomed and sought changes such as pay for performance. Not all of them were on board, but many of them were," she said. "Planning, being up front and taking the time to explain what's going on were keys to successfully implementing a big change like this."

Price has seen no falloff in Department of Public Works employee performance or morale as a result of Act 10.

"We have always had great employees with a great work ethic here," he said. "There were areas that could have been a problem but were not."

New rules

Under the union contract, any work over eights hours a day and on weekends was considered overtime. The new rules define overtime as more than 40 hours of productive work.

If, for example, an employee is sick on Monday and is paid under the sick leave provision, he or she could be required to work the next five days—Tuesday through Saturday, eight hours each day—with no overtime. The sick day is not considered a productive workday.

"This can be a tough job at times," Price said. "Drivers are called out in the middle of the night or in the middle of Christmas dinner to plow snow, and that may not result in overtime.

"Our drivers continue to be conscientious about their duties," he said. "I feel lucky to have such a great group of employees in this department."

Bretl admits it might not been entirely smooth with Act 10 in place.

"With contracts, we usually had across-the-board pay increases, such as 1.5 percent per year," he said. "Now, we could see 3.5 percent pay raises for the high performers and no pay raise for those not meeting expectations.

"There's no difference in the total expenditure, but there could be public criticism of 3.5 percent pay raises in a down economy," Bretl said. "We could argue that we're not spending any more money and we're spending it more wisely, but it could be perceived that we are handing out 3.5 percent pay raises when they were 1.5 percent in the past."

One key to employee satisfaction is good leadership with supervisors who know and understand the work their employees are asked to perform.

Price is a model of that type of leader. Since he started with the county in 1984 as a maintenance worker, he has performed nearly every task in the department from cleaning and fixing toilets to working with the Secret Service to protect President George W. Bush.

"I'm very fortunate to work here," Price said. "I try to set an example and understand what employees are going through. That's why I believe we have been able to adjust to Act 10."

Hagstrom said the post-Act 10 environment is a culture change.

"Like any culture change, this will take time to embed in our organization," she said, "but we have taken steps to make the change as smooth as possible."

Last updated: 8:09 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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