Legislation in Albany would change the procedure local officials must...

Legislation in Albany would change the procedure local officials must follow when they want to suspend or fire a public employee. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/Hailshadow

A bill headed to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s desk would make major changes to how school superintendents, town supervisors, and mayors handle bad behavior by public employees. New Yorkers face punishing consequences if she lets it become law.

Since the 1950s, state law has guaranteed public workers accused of incompetence or misconduct a number of protections, including the right to a hearing under rules designed to shield them from arbitrary or unjustified firing.

But the legislation, which passed the State Senate and Assembly amid a flurry of hundreds of bills earlier this month, would change the procedure local officials must follow when they want to suspend or fire an employee. It would force officials to hire an arbitrator, who typically charges thousands of dollars per day, to oversee any hearing, and it would force local governments and school districts to keep paying an accused employee in virtually all cases until a hearing can be held.

The groups pushing the changes — public employee unions, primarily New York State United Teachers and the Civil Service Employees Association — insist they're necessary to ensure a “fair” process. But they’ve failed to muster a single example where the decades-old law, with its guardrails and appeals, has left a worker mistreated. Their suggestion that people are being fired arbitrarily is especially hard to fathom given the difficulties schools and municipalities have had, amid a tight labor market, in hiring to meet basic operational needs.

Disciplining employees is an important part of running a school district or local government. Officials, like other employers, face issues ranging from employees sleeping on the job or failing to show up for work to more serious misconduct such as violence or drug use. These matters must be dealt with to make sure government offices open on time, school buses move children safely, and public funds get handled properly.

But the changes sought by the unions would make discipline more expensive, and make officials seek it less often — and that’s the point.

The bill’s sponsors indicated they wanted discipline rules for rank-and-file public employees to mirror the state’s teacher tenure rules, which gives local officials an idea of what they’re in for if Hochul signs the bill.

A 2018 study by the New York State School Boards Association found, under those rules, it costs an average of $141,722 to bring a disciplinary case against a tenured teacher, with the process taking an average of 180 days. It also found about one-third of school districts had recently chosen at least once not to discipline a teacher or other tenured school professional, because the process was “too onerous” or “too expensive.”

That often leads school officials to instead negotiate with people busted for misconduct.

Newsday recently revealed the prevalence of confidential settlements between Long Island school districts and accused employees that leave the public in the dark and put children (and adults) in other districts at risk.

Handcuffing local officials with tenure-style rules will make it harder for them to deal with the next case of a security guard leaving a gun in a bathroom, or a bus driver duct-taping a student, as happened on Long Island. They’ll inevitably have to overlook minor problems in the workplace, which will degrade the quality of services and risk letting more serious problems go unaddressed before it’s too late.

No one can fault the unions for trying to get such an unreasonable arrangement for their members. Blame should be reserved for the elected officials who would give it to them.

This guest essay reflects the views of Ken Girardin, a fellow at the Empire Center for Public Policy in Albany. 

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