Opinion/Editorial published in the Charleston Gazette, Charleston, WV — March 9, 2013

Why, there’s no remedy; ’tis the curse of service, Preferment goes by letter of affection, And not by the old gradation, where each second Stood heir to the first.

— Iago, Othello, Act 1, Scene 1, Shakespeare

From the vantage point of a state employee, the current attempt to eradicate consideration of seniority from public school employment is both familiar and saddening.

There’s a recent television commercial that questions the practice of banks offering special teaser terms to attract new customers that says: “Even kids know it’s not fair to treat new friends better than old friends.”

It has been, unfortunately, the longstanding practice of state agencies to ignore considerations of seniority when making promotions, work assignments and other decisions that preferentially benefit some public workers and not others. Because of this, the vestiges of favoritism, cronyism and patronage — not to mention retaliation and discrimination — continue unimpeded, despite the purported reforms of a civil service system governing employee relations.

Even before the current freeze on merit raises, commonly known as the Puccio Memorandum, seniority wasn’t necessarily valued in decisions about who would receive, for example, pay increases. The reasonable expectation that the longer an employee satisfactorily performed the duties of a position, the higher they would be within the appropriate pay grade — the principle of step raises — has never been a given. As a result, in the absence of a statutory cost of living adjustment, almost all state workers have seen steady declines in their standards of living.

The blanket freeze on discretionary raises, however, has only exacerbated the unfairness endemic in public employment. As it currently stands, the two available ways to gain an increase in salary are to seek reallocation to a higher pay grade or to apply for openings posted as promotions from the worker’s current classification.

Although the system of classifications used for state workers is notoriously outdated, the state’s Division of Personnel has proved generally resistant to requests for reallocation, as evidenced in the high number of grievances filed for denials. Similarly, there are a significant number of grievances filed over hiring choices made for posted positions, a large number of which, unsurprisingly, cite seniority and length of work experience as grounds for contesting selections made.

Using figures supplied by the public employees grievance board for the 2008-09 period to get a ballpark estimate, classification and selection grievances totaled 1,623. If the general classes of non-disciplinary grievances are added, which include transfers, bumping, discrimination and other matters of preference potentially addressed by statutory seniority rights, the total is 2,394, or well more than half of all grievances filed for that period.

The costs to morale and employee retention are, one may presume, enormous. The effect of a reintroduction of cronyism to public education is easily predictable. Just take measure of the mess known as state government.

Simmons is a field organizer for UE Local 170, West Virginia Public Workers Union.