TOPEKA — A pay raise offered this month to employees of the Department for Children and Families is the latest in the state’s yearslong shift toward employing fewer workers and ones who do not have the right to job protections and bonuses.
The DCF pay raise — offered to workers who did not get a wage hike through the Legislature this spring — would bump pay by 2.5 percent for workers who give up their “classified” status and associated longevity bonuses and right to appeal decisions to the State Civil Service Board.
That offer, the state says, is one made regularly by agencies. It would add to the rising number of “unclassified” employees who lack civil service protections and can be fired or let go at any time. The state increasingly has relied on those unprotected employees in recent years while dwindling the overall number of state employees with steep declines in the number of classified employees.
Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees union, said he thought that had “shattered” the state workforce and that classified employees, who have, on average, served longer in state government but make lower wages, feel unappreciated.
“Those are the people that have the most valuable skills and knowledge, and it’s going to be like a brain drain when we lose those veteran employees,” Choromanski said.
John Milburn, a spokesman for the Department of Administration, said in a statement that the increase in unclassified staff had come from formerly classified workers converting to unclassified positions and because agencies are allowed under a 2015 law to give new employees unclassified status when they are hired. He pointed to the unclassified status as a way to reduce the number of state workers.
“Because of the greater flexibility allowed by the unclassified service, most state agencies have been able to staff more efficiently, resulting in an overall decrease in the number of state employees,” Milburn said.
Since 2009, the number of classified employees in the executive branch — excluding Regents universities — has dropped by nearly 50 percent, while the number of unclassified employees dipped in 2011 and 2012 before rising, according to data from the Department of Administration.
Kansas Secretary of State and gubernatorial hopeful Kris Kobach has advocated allowing even further decline in the number of state workers. He said his department had been able to reduce its workforce through attrition and proposes it be done statewide. Between fiscal years 2012 and 2016, his staff dropped from 42 employees to 37. Kobach pointed to a study released earlier this year by the conservative Kansas Policy Institute that says Kansas had the third-most local and state government employees per capita in 2015.
“Clearly Kansas has a much greater percentage of state and local employees than 47 other states, so the notion that we have no room to cut is ridiculous,” Kobach said. “We have a lot of room to cut.”
Kobach and Olathe Republican Rep. Erin Davis, vice chair of the House Legislative Budget and Appropriations committees, both pointed to private-sector employees who lack civil service protections to support at-will employment.
Davis said, “warranted or not,” she had heard concerns from state employees about being at-risk in an unclassified position.
Choromanski, however, said the classified positions ensure workers are hired on merit, not to conform to the administration in charge at any given time. Unclassified workers do not get that protection.
“They can get let go for any reason or no reason whatsoever,” Choromanski said.
He said he thought agencies were struggling to keep up with their work because of the staffing reduction.
Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat and ranking minority member of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the declining number of state workers and shift toward unclassified status made it difficult for agency employees, including DCF social workers, to keep up with their case loads.
“This administration is just doing what Kris Kobach is talking about,” Kelly said.
Choromanski also contends the division between state employees has created dissension among the ranks. Unclassified employees tend to have less experience but make larger salaries, according to the Department of Administration.
“It’s causing a lot of heartburn for the classified employees who have remained in the state service for 10 years, 20 years or more,” Choromanski said.
The DCF raise — so far offered to 118 people and accepted by 49 — was aimed at giving a pay hike to workers who did not get one under the Legislature’s plan this spring, spokeswoman Theresa Freed said. She referred questions about previous shifts toward unclassified workers to the Department of Administration.
Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s interim spokeswoman, Rachel Whitten, said in a statement that Brownback was urging agencies to use funds to grant raises to those who were not eligible for the legislative raise, but she directed questions about the general use of classified employees to the Department of Administration.
Milburn said the Department of Administration was working on a plan to give raises to workers who were not eligible for the Legislature’s pay raise.