Missouri Supreme Court upholds law stripping state workers of merit system protections | News from the Four States
Most Missouri state employees are at-will workers who are not entitled to seniority protections or grievance rights when terminated, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
In an opinion that overturned a Cole County Circuit Court ruling, the High Court said a 2018 law repealing the merit system for most state employees was constitutional. Three unions representing state employees alleged that the law had illegally changed their collective agreements by stripping them of job protections guaranteed in the contracts.
Those agreements, Judge W. Brent Powell wrote in the unanimous decision, all included provisions stating that changes in state law could change the terms of employment.
“Essentially, all of the (agreements) included escape clauses, recognizing that the provisions of (the agreement) could not supersede the law, and allowing for the (agreements) to be changed if the law changed,” Powell wrote. .
Shortly after the law was passed in 2018, the State Personnel Advisory Board issued new regulations eliminating seniority protections for layoffs and recalls; reasoned protections for suspensions, terminations and demotions; and grievance procedures for employment actions such as transfers.
Only employees who work in state correctional and charitable facilities — prisons and hospitals — have retained merit system protections, exceptions included in the law to comply with federal regulations.
Three unions — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Communications Workers of America; and the Service Employees International Union — challenged the law.
Each had contracts that required merit system protections for covered employees. Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled last year that the contracts remain in effect until renegotiated.
AFSCME represents employees of several agencies in two bargaining units – craft and maintenance positions and direct care. CWA represents employees of the Department of Social Services, the Department of Health and Senior Services, and the Office of Administration. The SEIU represents probation and parole employees and patient care professionals of the Missouri Department of Corrections, Department of Mental Health, and Veterans Affairs Commission.
By stripping the protections of the merit system, the unions argued, the law violated constitutional provisions barring the legislature from undermining contract obligations.
In upholding the law, Powell wrote that the two elements that define work at will are an indefinite length of employment and the ability of both parties to terminate the employment relationship at any time without stated reason.
“But grievance procedures, seniority protections, and reasoned requirements are not necessarily incompatible with at-will employment,” Powell wrote. “These terms and conditions of employment are only inconsistent with employment at will if they limit the right to terminate employment at any time without cause.”
In its ruling, the court ordered Beetem to hold additional hearings to determine which topics could be included and which should be excluded from future state employment contracts.
The disputed law was one of two major bills passed in 2018 at the behest of the government at the time. Eric Greitens to limit the rights of public employees. A bill, which required certain employee unions to receive annual approval to withhold dues from paychecks, was declared unconstitutional last year by the Missouri Supreme Court.
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