Today, continuing with my “public employees suck!” theme, I’m going to address another interesting and confusing myth: the belief that unions protect the lazy and incompetent workers.
Really, this argument is ridiculous. I hear it a lot, and apparently the people making this argument have never held a job at a serious company where there is a formal process to discipline and fire an employee (except for unusual circumstances like assault or sexual harassment). Retaining bad employees is as American as apple pie. It happens everywhere, and if you disagree… you’ve never been part of the workforce.
But first, I should just say something about my position. As mentioned last time, I work at Oregon State University. I work a forty-hour week, and sometimes have been known to put in free overtime to help with a project I happen to care about. Technically I can ask for comp time if I work over 40 hours a week, and I usually do for truly long hours, but an extra 30-45 minutes here and there doesn’t bother me enough to worry about it. Interestingly, when I was told at Musician’s Friend that I was “expected, but not required” to put in a minimum of a 43-hour workweek, I was rather put out, and found myself daydreaming for that last half-hour. Before you go showing off how awesome you are for your 16-hour days, no, this was not during crunch time – this was the “things are going slow right now” workweek. Also, if you worked 16-hour days regularly, you better have been very well-paid for it. MF paid no overtime nor gave comp time except in special circumstances.
My point is that whatever you may think, public employees are not inherently incompetent or lazy. Some most definitely are, but so are many private-sector employees. For instance….
At Musician’s Friend, I saw many amazing software engineers, and a few really bad ones. The worst was Ty. Ty was hired at about 2.5x the rate I was hired at, and even when I was promoted to the same title as he, I was still paid around $20,000 a year less. Ty didn’t ever accomplish anything that didn’t require a lot of cleanup by better developers. He was given warnings about his performance over two years after he started working, even though he had been struggling since day one — he just didn’t understand web applications, databases, or code reusability.
I guess measuring competency is too hard for the higher-ups, because warnings never led to any real disciplinary action. Eventually, my supervisor went to HR and they told him to give Ty a simple project to complete, and if he failed, we could finally fire him. After we spent a good day or two outlining a pretty solid design, we were told by our boss (the director of IT) to cancel the project and not bring it up to HR again.
Ty stuck around for a little while longer, and was later let go because he used more Family Medical Leave than the law required us allow. Instead of firing him for incompetence, they waited until they could just close the position quietly.
Before MF, I worked at a tiny little development company called Personalized Software. There was a receptionist there who was in charge of time-keeping. We’ll call her “Cindy”. She looked over people’s clock-ins and clock-outs to figure out how much leave a given person had left.
On somebody’s anonymous suggestion, I wrote an app to monitor changes to time entries – basically it took a snapshot of the database every 10 minutes and compared to the prior snapshot, only looking for time entries that were updated rather than worrying about new data. When you clocked in or out via the terminal up front, it would enter a new record. Those would be edited at times in order to deal with a mis-punch and such.
We found that around 5:00pm, Cindy’s time entries would change. Every day. Without fail. On a typical day, she would add 10-20 minutes to her total for the day by changing arrival, lunch out, lunch in, and departure by no more than five minutes each. She was very clever, I will give her that – her lack of greed made it next to impossible to catch her without the app I wrote.
We did hour calculations every two weeks, and they needed to add up to 80 or else some leave would be used. Her average of adding 15 minutes a day gave her the unique ability to take off two hours every pay period without using any leave time. We showed the boss, and he decided it was too small a cheat to confront her. He let her stick around until one day a year or so later when she was fired on the spot without any warning.
She wasn’t incompetent, but she sure was breaking the policies. And whatever she was fired for I’ll never know – she was gone before most people even knew she had been fired. And that’s saying something, considering the company had only 15 employees.
When I lived in Concord, CA, I worked at a restaurant known as Grissini. Excellent food if you’re ever in the area. Anyway, I worked mostly nights but sometimes during the day. During the day, there was a busser I worked with who would literally sleep in the closet during his shift. No, not on lunch or break, but during times when I needed his help.
I made many complaints about this fact, and the response I always got was that they couldn’t fire him without writing him up some number of times first, and following this ridiculous protocol, so it wasn’t worth worrying about. Sounds like the union had this guy’s back, right? Yeah, except unions weren’t involved in any way. The policy was simply how the restaurant operated, and the managers were too lazy to discipline bad employees.
Is that it?
No, it isn’t. I could cite a dozen more examples just from my own experiences. The private sector may claim to have the power to fire incompetent people, but the real world just doesn’t work that way. Even in Oregon, where firing is theoretically as easy as telling anybody at any time “YOU’RE FIRED”, big companies still tend to have a pretty formal process before terminating an employee, and proving incompetence is an especially hard thing to do.