CHAPEL HILL - Changes to the employee grievance process are a leading concern among opponents of legislation that could transfer thousands of UNC employees from a state-run personnel system to one overseen by the UNC Board of Governors.
Provisions of Senate Bill 575, if passed with the state budget this year, would let the UNC system create a new grievance process. UNC officials say those changes would help university employees.
Some university employees and labor activists disagree.
But changes have already been made to the grievance process for employees covered under the State Personnel Act, and more could be coming.
Last year the General Assembly eliminated State Personnel Commission review for cases in the grievance process. The commission’s vote was the final decision in contested employment cases that worked their way through a state agency human resources department and then to the Office of Administrative Hearings, a third-party court that only hears labor dispute cases from state agencies.
Now, an Administrative Law Judge from the OAH renders a final verdict.
The Office of State Personnel has also announced plans to mandate mediation in labor disputes for all state agencies and implement a standard grievance process across all state bodies, said Ann Lemmon, associate vice president for human resources for the UNC system.
Critics of the bill worry that neutral third party would be lost if the university system is allowed to create its own personnel system, and remove its employees from the state grievance process.Ross meets critics
Employees questioned UNC President Tom Ross and Board of Governors Chairwoman Hannah Gage last week on the current employee grievance system, and what a new one would look like.
A new personnel system would include a fair grievance process with opportunities for employees to be heard by grievance panels that would include fellow employees, Ross said.
But for many employees, it still comes down to trust.
A verbal guarantee of a fair grievance process isn’t enough, said Jeff Hirsch, an associate professor at the UNC-CH Law School who specializes in labor law.
“You’re asking employees to give up, albeit an imperfect system, one that has legal rights, for nothing,” he said. “If I counseled a client to make that deal I’d expect a malpractice suit.”
If a grievance complaint doesn’t go to a neutral third-party for review then the system is meaningless, he said.
Removing the State Personnel Commission from the grievance process was a good thing for employees, said Ardis Watkins, director of legislative affairs for the State Employees Association of North Carolina or SEANC.
“You get your day in court,” she said.
But if UNC creates its own personnel system, it wouldn’t have the authority to do what OAH does, or send cases to a body like it, she said.
“You would need a statute that would send those grievances to the state Office of Administrative Hearings,” Watkins said.Tailor-made process
SEANC has heard from thousands of employees concerned and opposed to SB 575, said Watkins, who has visited 13 of the UNC system’s 17 campus to talk about it.
But UNC officials say a grievance process created specifically for university employees would be more effective and would include a role for an impartial, third party.
As a state employee for 17 years, Ross said he’s not always agreed with how the state treats its employees and said a new personnel system would be an improvement.
“I’ve never been satisfied that they necessarily stepped up to the plate and did what needed to be done, and I think when we do that we will be better off,” he said.
It typically takes 16 months for cases to make their way through the OAH courts, and only about 12 of all state personnel cases per year come from the university system, said Lemmon.
The Board of Governors approved eight guiding principles last month, which would be included in the legislation if it passes. The UNC system staff assembly president Chuck Brink has endorsed the principles, which say employees will be consulted if a new system is created.
But some students and labor activists say the principles, along with the rest of the bill, are deliberately vague.
Ross passed out a Frequently Asked Questions sheet last week that included assurances that any new system would continue longevity pay and the same number of paid holidays. He emphasized there would be worker protections from political coercion, and reemployment rights in the event of a layoff. If the legislation passes, UNC would continue to use the SPA system until a new one is developed.