TAMPA — As governments across Florida trim their employee ranks, Hillsborough County is introducing a change that is sending waves of anxiety through its workforce.
County government employees were told this week that some of them will soon be forced to reapply for their jobs and compete against outside applicants.
The jobs, about 120 in all, are getting new titles and new responsibilities as part of a broader reorganization of county government, County Administrator Mike Merrill said.
Some of them will be eliminated altogether. Though the county won't know the exact number of job cuts until later next month, it is expected to be between 30 and 45.
Merrill said the approach aims to give the public what it wants — more efficient government — while treating employees fairly and humanely. It could also serve as a model for future job cutbacks, he said.
The announcement touched off panicked e-mails and phone calls among county employees and their families.
The e-mails say that those hired back will get offered wages at the bottom end of a smaller pay scale. They also contend that it is an end run around government employees' Civil Service protections, or even an attempt to cripple Civil Service altogether.
They contend the affected employees are being subjected to a cruel workplace version of musical chairs. It will force 20-year veterans of county government to justify their existence.
"We're putting together an information request for exactly what is being done," said Hector Ramos, director of the regional office of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents many of the county's blue-collar workers. "We're concerned about workers who are about to lose their livelihoods in these terrible economic times."
The county is looking to consolidate the back shop operations of about a dozen offices, including Health and Social Services to Fire-Rescue, as property tax receipts continue to fall. It affects employees who do such things as purchasing, bookkeeping and grant writing that are not always visible to the public.
Historically, each department has employed its own clutch of such workers. Now they'll be housed under one roof, with employees asked to serve various aspects of county government.
"We're really trying to satisfy two needs here," Merrill said. "There's the need to be cost effective and responsive to taxpayers. But on the other hand we're trying to be sensitive to employees, a lot of whom have worked here awhile."
County employees will be given "first consideration" in filling the new positions, Merrill said. But in some cases, they may be forced to look at a broader pool of applicants.
"There will be different jobs requiring different skill sets," said Sharon Subadan, the deputy county administrator for public safety and community services, who oversees the areas affected. "We are going to end up with more people than we have seats around the table. We felt the fairest way to do this was to establish the new positions and allow people to compete."
Subadan said there is no intention of cutting wages, though she acknowledges that some people could end up in lower-paid jobs and the effort should trim about $600,000 a year in county spending. Nor, she said, is it an effort to circumvent Civil Service rules, which give county employees preferential treatment when new openings arise and protect them from arbitrary changes in duties or wages.
In fact, Civil Service is helping craft the plan.
Hillsborough County has gone through several rounds of job cuts, eliminating about one-sixth of its work force in the past four years. All but 181 of the remaining roughly 4,530 full-time employees who report to the county administrator enjoy Civil Service protection.
During past cuts, the county has let managers decide who gets to stay in the remaining jobs. More senior level employees who got layoff notices were permitted to "bump" less experienced employees from their posts, taking over their jobs.
This time, a whole new department is essentially being created, along with new jobs, while others are being eliminated. This at least lets the affected employees make the case for their jobs, which they don't get under the more traditional approach.
"Then management can do interviews to determine the best match," said Dane Petersen, director of Hillsborough County Civil Service. "They have to consider internal candidates before we'll allow them to recruit someone from outside."
Merrill's announcement follows a recent County Commission decision to allow retirement-eligible employees to take buyouts of up to $25,000 to leave before June 30.
He said he made the announcement about possible cutbacks so that those considering the buyout had fair warning that layoffs are possible.
"It is this difficult economic climate that necessitates all of us being tasked with doing more with fewer resources than in previous years," said Merrill, who made the announcement to employees through a video on the county's Intranet. "This is not easy."
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.