UI officials urge cooperation on classifying employees

UI officials urge cooperation on classifying employees

URBANA — Let's sit down and work it out.

That was the message several university officials delivered Thursday to the state board weighing a proposal to take the decision-making authority away from universities when it comes to their hiring of certain employees called academic professionals.

"If there's a problem, let's work together to solve it," urged University of Illinois animal sciences Professor Matt Wheeler, who chairs the Urbana Academic Senate. He and over a dozen university employees from around the state, largely from the University of Illinois system, spoke out against a proposed rule change that would put power back in the hands of the Urbana-based State Universities Civil Service System, or SUCSS.

The three-hour-long public hearing was held in advance of the SUCSS merit board meeting planned for later this month, during which members of the board are expected to take up the proposal, possibly voting on whether or not the rule change should continue on at the state level for final approval.

By state law, the civil service system oversees the hiring of university civil service employees. Since the late 1990s, the system started allowing universities to decide whether a position is classified as civil service or exempt, in the case of some academic professional positions. Along the way, SUCSS would regularly review positions to ensure they were not being classified as academic professional when they should be civil service. After several years of audits that pointed to an increased number of positions wrongly classified, particularly on the UI's Chicago campus, state legislators proposed to strip the universities of their exemption authority.

When the proposed legislation failed, a rule change was proposed before the state last year.

Perhaps legislation was not the best place to deal with the universities' exemption authority, said Tom Morelock, the civil service system's executive director.

"This is the best place to deal with this," he said, referring to Thursday's public hearing. "It gives all the stakeholders a chance to speak," he said. All comments will be forwarded to members of the merit board.

After the hearing, Morelock said he has planned a "focus group" type of meeting for next week to continue to discuss the proposed rule change. That group will include UI officials and members of the civil service advisory committee.

The proposed amendment to state rules has received support from civil service employees and unions and strong resistance from university human resources professionals, academic professionals and faculty. On Thursday, the majority of those who spoke said they opposed the rule change.

Kathy Seybert, director of human resources at the UI's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, and who has been at the university for decades before and after the exemption authority was granted to the UI, said she was "adamantly opposed to the amendment" because it will "chip away at the University of Illinois' ability to hire the workforce it needs to remain competitive."

Before the university was granted the exemption authority in the late 1990s, she said university staff, including those at state universities other than the UI, often complained of long delays in the hiring process due to the volume of requests and understaffing at the system.

"The bottom line for us," said UI Chief Financial Officer Walter Knorr, "is that delays in receiving classification decisions from the SUCSS office will have a serious impact on our ability to serve our students, conduct our research and care for our patients. This is unacceptable."

"Something still has to be done to ensure proper classification. Doing nothing is not acceptable," said Julie Benedict, a civil service employee at Eastern Illinois University and chair of the civil service advisory committee to the merit board who spoke in favor of the rule change as proposed.

Gary Fry, an ironworker at the UI and a member of the civil service advisory committee, said the group has tried for 15 years to have the authority taken from universities, as civil service employees have seen academic professionals do what is considered the work of civil service employees.

"We believe (removing exemption authority from universities) will provide accountability," Benedict added.

The UI's Knorr spoke in favor of university and civil service system staff working together to update, redefine or clarify standard titles used in the exemption process.

"Rather than taking away exemption authority, we need to be working collaboratively to resolve exemption guidelines and criterion ambiguities so that all of us can serve our state institutions in the best way possible," said Maureen Parks, the UI's executive director of human resources.

In what was perhaps one of the more colorful testimonies of the afternoon, Eastern Illinois University President William Perry said as a child, when his brother misbehaved, both he and his brother were spanked.

"I didn't like it then and I don't like it now," he said, likening the proposal to a broad-brush approach or one-size-fits-all solution to a problem.

He said EIU is committed to a solution that involves identifying specific problems that need to be solved. If there's a problem, "we should sit down together and solve it," he said.

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rsp wrote on January 04, 2013 at 5:01 am

The best solution is usually the one where people work together. It sounds like there are already people willing to do that to get to a middle that serves everyone. Maybe everyone else will join them. 

Sid Saltfork wrote on January 04, 2013 at 10:01 am

There was a middle; and the universities HR departments chose to ignore it.  Now; some are willing to go back to the middle, and others are wanting to continue to ignore it.  Don't expect academia to be cooperative, or reasonable either.  That would require using time away from it's passions, and following rules.  Elites don't like being bothered by things that do not interest them.  They know what they want; and do not like being told "No".   

woz wrote on January 04, 2013 at 12:01 pm

As it was pointed out at the public hearing, audit findings (where SUCSS finds that an employee is improperly classified) jumped higher during the same period of time at all institutions in the state. It is unreasonable to believe in some sort of massive conspiracy, or that HR professionals at these institutions all decided simultaneously to disregard civil service statutes.

Indeed, it seems clear that the auditing standards have changed, and continue to change each audit cycle. A classification that was acceptable in prior cycles is no longer acceptable. The "middle" has been a moving target, and if university HR has been unable to properly classify employees, it's because the ground keeps shifting beneath their feet.

Sid Saltfork wrote on January 04, 2013 at 5:01 pm

The HR professionals are reacting to the wants of the department making the request.  HR is caught between following policy, and reacting to the department's attitude on not being bothered by rules.  If there is any "moving target"; it is the departments ever changing opinion of what skills are needed, not necessary, for a requested position.  With so many degreed individuals seeking employment, the "qualified" applicant has a degree when the position does not require it.  A clerical with a BS in Biology could take notes in a staff meeting using biology terms better than one with a high school diploma.  The staff meeting notes still have to be typed up though, and distributed on e-mail since the staff in attendance do not take their own notes.  The degreed applicant needs a job; and has student loans.  They may have been in someone's class also.  They are more versatile since classifications are more blurred.  They are more dependent on their supervisor; and willing to do whatever is asked of them.  Also, they are easier to fire when new desired skills are wanted.

moderndaycowboy wrote on January 04, 2013 at 1:01 pm

The university civil service system is an outdated, bureaucratic mess that needs to be thrown out and completely revamped. I know in the department I work in, we've had to redo multiple searches because the people that HR sends us, based on the civil service testing, are completely worthless.



Sid Saltfork wrote on January 04, 2013 at 4:01 pm

What is the classification / position that was being filled?

bmwest wrote on January 04, 2013 at 8:01 pm
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A compromise that might work to overcome issues due to delays would be for SUCSS to review all exemptions but, if they do not make a ruling within 5 days, it is approved by default.

moderndaycowboy wrote on January 04, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Clerk and Office Manager positions. The tests for both seem like were created in the 60's.

sgraham48 wrote on January 05, 2013 at 5:01 am

The battle is between the labor unions (over 50+) and the insitutions ability to get the work done.  The reason there is more resistance at UIC is because of the union presence in Chicago and politics.  Another component in the battle is the perception of productivity.  The UIC reputation for a long time (Civil Service centric) was a work force that showed up late, left early, took 2 hours lunches, got paid more than UIUC, was entrenched in doing it the Chicago way,  and made so little progress you had to make a mark to make sure there was some.  At best, the relationship between UIUC and UIC has been "cordial."

The fact is this, there was a long period of time where UIUC needed to get work done and it was a huge hassle to go through the Civil Service process.  The solution?  Hire more APs where the process was less contentious and the ability to manage people wasn't restricted by union requirements that, although designed to protect, really worked against getting work done.  Have you EVER tried to fire a Civil Service employee?  At best, you had to reassign them.  In other words, push non-performers off on an unsuspecting department.  And, quite honestly, the same problem crops up with APs.  The ability to promote the incompetent at the U of I was embarassing. 

There ARE wonderful employees at the U of IL, both AP and Civil Service.  But, when the list of available Civil Service employees is filled with castoffs and the rules only allow you to hire from the list, it's tough to do so in good conscience.

Bulldogmojo wrote on January 07, 2013 at 9:01 am


Bulldogmojo wrote on January 07, 2013 at 8:01 am

Having been a union steward I have seen just how fast they can get rid of a civil service person if they want to. They now use a human resources program called the Performance Partnership Program which they have weaponized for its ability to fast track someone into unemployment.

The larger problem is when positions become vacated they are closing them to save money. The frequent outcry of "The union is just trying to increase its numbers!" is absurd. Our numbers due to positions closing have been dwindling for years. An empty desk can't join a union 

Sid Saltfork wrote on January 06, 2013 at 10:01 pm

One example of AP, and Civil Service:  Academic Professional in charge of the office calls in to state that they are working from home, and no phone calls are to be forwarded.  Her assistant, another AP, calls in to state that she will be working from home; and to call her only if it is important.  The Civil Service secretary answers all calls, and takes messages while doing her work.  Three university employees, and only one working in the office.  This is just one example of many daily occurences on campus.  

Yes, there are many good APs, and Civil Service employees; but there are many APs who consider themselves junior faculty.  Whether an employee is an AP, or Civil Service; they need to be working in their assigned work area, not from home.  The public should be allowed taxpayer tours on campus. 

Bulldogmojo wrote on January 07, 2013 at 8:01 am

Yes AP's pull that I'll be working from home crap all the time and then they don't realize that their token email of the day says, "sent from my iPhone" on the bottom of it. Brilliant!

Maybe the ethics office should start doing audits on if their computer is actually logged on for how long and how much "Work at home" programming is actually getting done