The State Worker

Two-year probation for state workers? That’s what Jerry Brown is proposing

Government Operations Secretary Marybel Batjer leads a program that aims to modernize state government for public employees.
Government Operations Secretary Marybel Batjer leads a program that aims to modernize state government for public employees. Sacramento Bee file photo, 2013

Getting a job working for the state of California can take months of testing and interviewing. Keeping one would take up to two years under a state budget provision that would give departments more time to lay off new workers without cause.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget includes a provision that would double the longest employment probation period in state government, extending it two years. Today, departments choose probationary periods of six months to one year.

That probation provision is one of several items in the state budget that would reshape rules governing California’s 250,000 state workers. Others would:

▪  Require managers to take leadership training courses every two years;

▪  Give departments more latitude to scrap so-called promotion lists that detail which employees qualify to move up the ranks;

▪  Loosen a regulation that limits an employee’s ability to transfer to a different but similar job in civil service.

Public employee unions have been quietly criticizing some of the provisions and they may be refashioned before lawmakers adopt a budget. Brown’s Government Operations Agency, which oversees a four-year-old effort to modernize civil service rules, declined an interview request for this story.

Government Operations Assistant Secretary David Rechs outlined the bill in a March teleconference with union leaders, describing the proposal as a package to improve hiring, recruiting and retention.

The extended probationary period was particularly unpopular among the state’s unions.

Probationary periods give employers time to assess whether workers have the right skills for their jobs. After clearing that period, state workers would gain protections from arbitrary layoffs.

“It does not take two years to determine someone’s skill in the job,” said Cliff Tillman, senior business agent for a chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees that represents about 5,000 health and social services workers.

This year, unions and others in state government have expressed impatience with the administration’s so-called civil service improvement project. Brown has been advancing policies to simplify state government for workers since 2013, when he appointed Marybel Batjer to lead the Government Operations Agency. They aim to attract younger workers to state employment while eliminating outdated personnel policies.

Brown’s supporters worry the clock is ticking on his goals as he moves into the final year of his term. State Personnel Board member Richard Costigan at a February public meeting urged Brown to move faster. So did Chris Voight, staff director for the union that represents state scientists.

“There’s hundreds, thousands of classifications in state government and this administration is out in 2018. It’s not a lot of time. We just know from experience this takes awhile,” Voight said.

So far, the program has modernized some recruiting campaigns by making it easier for people to search for state jobs online and by rethinking civil service exams that are required by state law.

Batjer’s project also has culled hundreds of unused job titles from state records. On Thursday, the State Personnel Board is scheduled to vote on striking 63 more job titles that have been vacant for at least two years, including correctional laundry supervisor and baker level two.

Some of the remaining goals for the civil service improvement project are more complicated because they likely would affect current employees.

For instance, Service Employees International Union Local 1000, the state’s largest union, is in negotiations over how to redefine state job classifications for information technology workers.

Brown’s administration wants to trim the number of IT job titles, striking ones that relate to specific departments. The union has questions for its members, such as how the changes will affect their pay scales and whether they’d be subjected to probationary periods if they move to different departments.

Voight’s union, the California Association of Professional Scientists, has been especially outspoken. It wrote a plan to consolidate job classifications for its members in 2015. Voight said the state did not take it up.

Instead, the administration has approached the union occasionally with narrow plans affecting one or two job classifications at a time. It’s in talks now over a proposal that would consolidate job titles for two positions, research scientists and energy specialists.

Voight wrote a letter to the administration last month calling the proposal “piecemeal.” He also urged the administration to seek feedback early as it drafts its civil service plans.

“They don’t tell anybody what they’re doing,” he said. “There’s a process issue here as well as a substance issue, and if we’re going to get something done in a meaningful way, they need to broaden their communications horizon and get to it.”

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at