Jacques: For public workers, hard work to get fired
The spotlight that’s been on lead in Flint water and teacher “sickouts” at Detroit Public Schools has highlighted all sorts of problems within state government. And it got me wondering, what does it take for a public employee to get fired?
Specific individuals within the state Department of Environmental Quality are directly responsible for the mishandling of water treatment in Flint. Yet no employees, other than the director and spokesman, have lost their jobs. As of Friday, the governor had suspended two DEQ workers, but that’s all he can do at this point.
That’s because the bureaucrats who work for state departments like the DEQ are protected by the Civil Service, which makes it burdensome to dole out punishment. Gov. Rick Snyder’s hands are tied until the Civil Service conducts its own investigation.
Similarly, the Detroit teachers who are participating in sickouts — which are strikes — are breaking Michigan law. Yet it’s next to impossible to punish striking teachers. The district must prove, either in court or through the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, that the teachers in question were actually striking and not simply taking a sick day.
Even Steve Conn, the ousted president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, who doesn’t hide the fact he’s encouraging strikes, still has a job.
In recent weeks, strikes have disrupted numerous schools throughout Detroit. Last Wednesday, more than 90 percent of all district schools were closed due to teachers neglecting their jobs. That means thousands of students were shut out from the classroom, and the chance to learn anything that day. Some of the striking teachers claim they are demonstrating because of unsafe conditions in the schools.
That’s worth bringing to light — but not by breaking the law.
Last week’s widespread strike led DPS administrators to take some of the worst offenders to court. The district sought a temporary restraining order against 23 teachers, the teachers union and other involved groups. But the judge dismissed all defendants but two and has delayed any action until a hearing three weeks from now, so expect the strikes to continue.
Lawmakers, much like DPS officials, are outraged that teachers can get away with striking and are working on crafting legislation that would make it easier to fire teachers and other public employees who break the law. Current law outlines fines and other penalties for teachers on strike, but proving it is onerous.
Three senators have introduced bills that would strengthen anti-strike laws by tightening the process for declaring and investigating strikes, and including harsher penalties.
Previous legislative action curbed the number of strikes in Michigan, but more should be done. According to the House Fiscal Agency, between 1965 and 1993, more than 670 teacher strikes took place. When lawmakers in 1994 amended the law to allow for fines against striking public employees, those actions largely stopped.
Lawmakers are also mulling changes to how the Civil Service operates, in light of the Flint crisis.
Given the egregious behavior of government employees at the DEQ and DPS, more people should be losing their jobs.