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COUNTY LAYOFFS NOW A GAME OF HOT POTATO

Some in line for a pink slip may be able to pass it to someone else.

Hillsborough County has begun slashing jobs in response to state-mandated spending cutbacks and slowed housing construction - and not without hiccups.

County human resources officials gave 19 recently hired employees two weeks' notice that they are losing their jobs. The last day for those employees, who have worked for the county for six months or less, is Aug. 11.

More than 100 other full-time employees are being sent certified letters, many received over the weekend, telling them that their jobs are going away by the end of September.

Some employees may have the option of moving to a vacant job or "bumping" someone in a similar position with less seniority or past disciplinary problems, or accepting a demotion.

The letters have caused some confusion among some of the recipients who were not told in advance. Some assumed they were pink slips, instead of, in essence, pink slip warning notices.

"This is all new to us," said Mathew Verghese, a senior personnel analyst with the county's Human Resources Department, who is working on the notification process. "We've never done this before."

Additionally, more than 200 part-time employees - mainly library shelf stockers, and parks umpires and maintenance workers - are learning that their jobs will be phased out by the end of the fiscal year.

More than 70 of the employees warned of possible layoffs work for the county's Planning and Growth Management Department, which is cutting numbers because of a dramatic drop in home construction.

Deputy County Administrator Wally Hill said the county has no policy requiring in-person notification of jobs in jeopardy.

"We haven't told directors to do that, but it would be advisable to clear up any misunderstandings," Hill said. "I would hope they've already made the information available to the employees."

Depending what commissioners decide today when they meet to set a tentative millage and balanced budget, more layoffs could come.

In the meantime, the letters touched off a process that may strike some in the business worlds as bizarre.

Jobs may vanish without workers necessarily getting laid off. First, the county will assign those employees, and others with the same job title, what is called a retention score.

The score, based primarily on tenure, is weighted positively or negatively by past job evaluations and disciplinary problems. If an employee due for layoff has a higher score than someone with the same job title, he or she can effectively bump the person with the lower score out of a job.

Similarly, an employee due to be laid off could elect to accept a demotion to a job held previously. If that job is occupied, and the person holding it has a lower score, he or she gets bumped.

The process can set off a chain reaction.

"It can be a process that involves two or more bumpings," said human resources director George Williams. "At some point, there isn't another person to be bumped and that person becomes the person laid off."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

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