Much has happened since my last post, so it’s difficult to know where to begin. but I’ll certainly try. Laura, a sweet woman, a dear friend, and coworker, got caught up in the city’s layoff cycle. If Mayor Mike (Bloomberg) has his way, she’ll be gone, just another terminated provisional (a worker who isn’t civil service) victim biting the city’s budgetary dust and soon to be standing in the unemployment line. Her story is like so many provisionals working in city government. Laura relied on a mentor to get her a job with the city. Through various connections and or political patronage, she got a city job. She moved up the career ladder, never giving a second thought to taking civil service exams that might keep her job in a financial crisis.
“Why take a test?” she’d say to anyone who would listen. “Civil Service tests are expensive,” she’d add. After all, she’d only be working the job for a short period until she found something better. Two or three months on the job turned into a year and then a year became two years. Two years became four and she was promoted several times and given two or three raises. Life was sweet. She loved her job. Her bosses and her coworkers liked her and she liked them.
One of her bosses spoke to another department head. She was offered a substantial raise and another big promotion to transfer to another unit. She leaped at the chance to move up the career ladder. She took the job, never thinking about the civil servants toiling quietly next to her that she left behind in her old unit or the new friends, also civil servants, she was to meet in her new job.
She never knew or didn’t care to know she’d taken a job meant for a civil servant who’d paid a filing fee, taken a test, passed it, and been installed on a civil service list, but due to a lack of connections or a poor score, had never been called from the list. Her boss, as so many bosses are prone to do, ignored the list to promote her and other workers like her into jobs where they might not qualify. Ah, but that didn’t matter to Laura. She’d gotten another raise and a new in-house title too. Now she could finally buy that new car she’d been dreaming about for several years and put new floors in the house she and her husband purchased several years ago with her first raise. Life was sweet and getting sweeter all the time for Laura.
In early June of this year, much to her surprise, Laura received a letter from the department of personnel. It said: Guess what, Laura? Nothing personal because we think you are a good worker but—there’s always a “but” that spells disaster and brings bad news, isn’t there? Anyway, the letter went on to say, “Due to budgetary constraints, we won’t need your services any longer. If we ever do need them, don’t call us, we’ll call you, and blah, blah and blah.”
Long before June’s bad news letter arrived, Laura and I had been talking about the rumors we’d heard about layoffs. Of course, when each one of us individually approached Queen Bee and her minion DD to clarify the rumors we’d heard, they both claimed not to know anything about layoff lists or recommendations for layoffs list. Common sense dictates that middle managers always create such lists, if only in their heads. While they may add or subtract from the “if I could just terminate employees x, y and z, everything would be good list,” they do have them. When I was a frontline supervisor, I had a “I’d like to fire your ass list” too, so I know all about those lists.
Over the last two years, I could see where the city was going, not that I predicted the financial crisis; I didn’t. When I’d come to work, I get that crazy itch at the back of my neck and a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that always spelled some kind of disaster was about to happen. So anyway, I started encouraging Laura to take any and all civil service tests available.
The only problem: the unions had gotten wise to the thousands of provisional employees like Laura and pressured the city do something about them. “Give more civil service tests, create a list, and make them permanent, then they’ll be our union members, wink, wink,” the union said. Of course the city said, “Unions, don’t tell us what to do. We’ll handle it our way. And we certainly don’t need more union members. We need less government, not more. With the mess on Wall Street and the looming housing crisis on Main Street America, we have less money coming in for salaries. Let’s terminate those provisionals in June. But only the ones we can’t sneak into non-competitive lines and hide until the layoff smoke clears.” That’s what the city did and thus Laura received her “Dear John” letter from the real personnel department of our agency and not the whacked-out, personnel-lite version located on each floor of HQ.
I’d love to tell you that Laura deserved to be laid off and perhaps issued a lecture on how she should have taken exams early on in her eleven-year career as I did, but I can’t. The layoffs weren’t done fairly. If you had the right connections, you were spared. You were removed from the termination list, as it were. Notice I didn’t say the spared employees were better workers because they weren’t. They were simply better connected. In my agency, I’ve heard of too many 1 and 2 year provisional employees who weren’t part of the first round provisional terminations. Conversely, I also know of too many 10 to 20 year employees who were part of the first wave of terminations.
I know more experienced employees are supposedly expensive with more vacation and sick days, potentially higher salaries due to length of service, but that isn’t necessarily true. Once the cost of training new employees, paying family maternity and paternity leave, and the learning curve are factored into the equation, I think experience wins out. That’s why I don’t understand the need to rid an agency of experience and yet keep the inexperienced but better connected worker. I won’t get into demographic politics here, but it does seem to me that the spared employees were overwhelmingly not people of color nor did they belong to the boomer generation. While of course, those let go were overwhelmingly experienced workers and people of color.
Did I mention how the actual notification procedure, I mean, termination packages were delivered to employees at my agency? People like me with union affiliations got an advanced peek at correspondence between the city’s commissioner of personnel services and union presidents who were most affected by layoffs. I’m not saying which union leaders, but it sure wasn’t the teacher’s union. They extracted a promise early on from Mayor Mike on higher productivity and other giveaways in exchange for no layoffs this year.
I saw the layoff list, and I noticed a third of my unit names were on the list as well as some good friends working in other units. When I confronted Queen Bee and her minion DD, as usual, they hid behind a claim of ignorance, which everyone knew to be false. Remember the previously mentioned “I’d like to fire your ass lists” that management creates?
My source had asked me not to tell the people on the lists and so I faced a dilemma. Should I violate a promise and at least tell my best friend she was about to be laid off? Or should I say nothing and let the chips fall where destiny guided them? For the next two days, I watched Laura go on a minor spending spree. All the time, I lived a tortured existence. Wondering to tell or not tell. If she knew about being laid off in a month, would her decisions be the same? Would she buy all that stuff or would she try to save her money for the bad times? If I decided to tell her, how and when should I do it?
I couldn’t stand the strain any longer and I called her into my office—which is far away from the beaten path. You have to really want to see me to find the darned place. Turned out someone else had told her in very general terms she might be on the list and she should be prepared. My truth telling simply confirmed to Laura that she was on the list. It also cemented our friendship in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. We started trolling the lake—seriously looking for any civil service test before T-Day.
The interesting thing for me was the lack of respect the suits showed folks on the provisional list. Approximately three weeks before the bell tolled, tech staff kicked everyone on the list out of their computers without prior notification. Where they had been able to receive and send email, cruise the net, and use other programs such as Word and MS Office, now they could only go to their electronic timesheets to sign in and out. If they came to work at all, there was no work for them to do because they couldn’t gain access to anything but timesheets. Who wanted to stare at a blank screen for eight hours?
I know plenty of employees who died or retired and their access codes remained in the system for several years before the tech unit removed them, but not now. I also recalled employees who had been fired for criminal or uncivil behavior had their computer access immediately eliminated. Laura mentioned several times before she left how the job made her feel like a criminal, as though she’d been caught engaging in some type of illegal behavior. I believe some units even insisted that employees turn in job ID cards in advance, which then forced them to go through lobby metal detectors as if they were members of the general public.
Since Queen Bee and DD wouldn’t confirm the pending layoffs or the deadline for termination, Laura and the other people in my unit had very little time to use the leave balances they’d accumulated over the years. City regulations cap how much sick, annual, and comp time it will pay employees leaving city service. Whatever the city refused to pay its now former employees always goes back into city coffers. That was factored into the plan to save the city’s money, wasn’t it, Mayor Mike?
What do these money-saving changes mean to the employees that are remain on the job? I can answer that question—a ton of extra work and a boatload of stress with plenty of jealousy and chaos. People are wondering why? Why wasn’t this guy on the list? Why was that guy on the list? Why did this happen now? Am I next? Who’s going to do all this work?
For me personally, I miss my friend Laura. I’ve been keeping in touch and encouraging her to keep applying for jobs. But it’s hard to spend Metro card money you don’t have on interviews for jobs you probably won’t get. I’m hoping she gets that job with another city agency that she wants. It doesn’t pay as much as the money she made before, but it’s better than nothing.
HAPPY POST LABOR DAY!!!
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