The merit system for state employees may need to be replaced, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said, because the job security it offers is seen as leading to a "calcified" work force.

Huntsman told the Deseret News he has not yet found an acceptable alternative to the system that gives state workers the ability to fight firings or other employer actions through a lengthy grievance process.

The governor did consider switching to a system that would have allowed government bosses to hire and fire employees at will, similar to what was put in place when he created the Utah Department of Technology Services three years ago.

But he said he's decided against making all state employees work at will — at least for now.

"There isn't an easy fix here, and I'm not looking for any type of quick solution," Huntsman said. "I'm not yet sold going beyond the merit system is right for the state. I'll listen to the arguments."

The proposal came from the Utah Department of Human Resource Management, which the governor has asked to look at ways to increase the flexibility of the state work force to make government employment more attractive, especially to younger workers.

Huntsman said he recognizes the current merit system "gives people a sense of permanence and a sense of security, which is important." Still, he said, there's an argument to be made for being able to bring people into government who may not want to stay long.

The governor said a more flexible system would allow the state to bring people in directly from the private sector "to do shorter stints in a government where you have less of a calcified professional corps."

He said that while he did not view the state work force that way, outsiders do.

"Anytime you look at tenure or you look at the merit system, people would describe it as calcified, without the flexibility other systems have," Huntsman said. "All I can say is we have a great group of people who work for the state. ... I see a lot of things I guess others don't."

State workers are concerned about losing some of their protections under the merit system, said Todd Sutton, Utah Public Employees Association employee representative. "The merit system for public employees is a benefit. The benefit is basically job security," he said.

And, Sutton said, it's not just state workers who are better off with the merit system. "The public that public employees serve are protected," he said. "The merit system really ensures checks and balances on employers."

But Sutton said he understands that's a view that's not widely held. "The perception is that it's hard to let go of public employees, but that's just not true," he said. "What the process does is make sure managers are following protocol."

Jeff Herring, executive director of the human resources department, said any change eventually made to what he prefers to call a career service system would only be to streamline the grievance process.

"People will still have the right to administrative review. That's what will not be changing. People will still have the right to submit grievances," Herring said, but they would be dealt with more quickly "instead of a three-year administrative process for a written reprimand."


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