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An Unproductive Bump

During layoffs, the effect of 'bumping rights' on the workplace is more than demoralizing.

Layoffs in government cause understaffed programs and hurt morale, while requiring remaining employees to work harder and diminishing quality of services to the public. But these potential ramifications of layoffs can be even worse thanks to a personnel practice known as "bumping rights."

When a department or agency is told to shrink its work force, bumping generally allows a more senior employee to displace a lower-level employee from a job. The rules can be dictated by unions, civil service regulations or both. We talked to several people in government about this, and the response was rather uniform. "Hideous" and "very demoralizing" are just two of the descriptions we heard. Jay Gasdaska, director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Labor Relations, added another: "extremely confusing to employees."

Since there haven't been many layoffs in government until recently, bumping provisions in civil service regulations or labor contracts have been passed forward over the years with minimal scrutiny. Tucson, Ariz., for instance, hasn't had layoffs in 30 years. But now that it is, a very confusing system of bumping is going on, and it's based on very old rules. So old, says Cindy Bezaury, Tucson's human resources director, that "no one who is still here can recall using them."

When an individual who is axed in a layoff takes the job of someone with less seniority, it can set off a domino effect. The bumped person bumps another, who bumps another and so on. "Bumping creates ripples that spread throughout the organization," says Neil Reichenberg, executive director of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources. "It's like bowling pins being knocked down."

When lots of pins fall, managers can lose young talent. Some of the young people at the tail end of the bumping are the ones with unique skills and flexibility in the work environment. A corollary is that, when older workers bump down to a lower-level job, they often find that many new skills are required. "Managers may be able to bump the administrative assistant," says Kenneth Poe, the director of Human Resources in Gwinnett County, Ga., "but can they answer a 12-line phone, do a file merge or create an Excel spreadsheet?"

Pennsylvania officials told us about the headaches that emerge when layoffs affect extremely specialized professional jobs--in museums, for example. "We had people who were awesome with the planetarium," says Jim Honchar, deputy secretary for human resources and management in Pennsylvania's Office of Administration. "But if they were shifted to dinosaurs, they were lost."

In some places, bumping can take place across departments, which heightens the likelihood that someone will wind up in a job for which he is thoroughly unprepared. A park-maintenance worker might bump into a job in the street area, where he has no experience. "The department is stuck with the individual" says Judy Tuttle, Las Vegas' deputy director of human resources. "And the individual is stuck with the department."

Even the folks who have jobs thanks to bumping aren't necessarily happy. On a skill and responsibility level, the job may be below the one they had and below what they had been paid--which can create morale issues.

Barry Bluestone, dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, understands well that unions value the concept of seniority as a fair and completely objective approach to personnel decisions. And bumping rights would seem to be a natural extension of seniority-based policies.

Bluestone, who co-authored Negotiating the Future: A Labor Perspective on American Business with his late father, Irving Bluestone (a protégé of Walter P. Reuther, president of the United Automobile Workers), is sympathetic to unions. But he also sees the critical need for collaborative endeavors in which labor and management work together for more effective government. He points out that there's an important difference between industries where workers hold fairly interchangeable jobs and those in which the jobs vary a great deal. In the former, bumping may preserve seniority without harming efficiency and productivity. But in the latter--the more common scenario--bumping, he says, lowers productivity. Either the person with higher seniority isn't well qualified for the job he's getting or he needs more training and expertise to get up to speed on the job.

Recent experiences with bumping may well lead to reform. Gwinnett County may be at the cutting edge of such a movement. In late 2008 and early 2009, it laid off more than 70 people; the bumping that ensued frustrated employees and disrupted the workplace. Halfway through the process, the human resources director went to the county's Merit Board, which is in charge of local civil service rules, and asked that bumping be eliminated. The county held two public hearings in which no employee protested the idea. Nor were there protests when the Board of Commissioners officially declared bumping rights to be a thing of the past. "People realized," says Poe, "that it's an antiquated approach."

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