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As deadline looms, city struggles to slim ranks of provisional workers

November 13, 2012

Citywide and Administrative Services Commissioner Edna Wells Handy, who testified last week about city efforts to comply with civil service hiring laws. Photo courtesy DCAS.

New York will be in violation of state civil service rules unless it finishes testing thousands of workers in the next year

Article for The New York World

Four years after the Bloomberg administration promised to sharply reduce the count of city workers who have never taken required civil service exams, city government still has more than 23,000 in its ranks — over twice as many of these so-called provisional workers as state law allows.

At a hearing last week, Department of Citywide Administrative Services commissioner Edna Wells Handy reported to the City Council’s Committee on Civil Service and Labor on her agency’s progress in reducing the number of provisional workers. New York City has cut more than one-third of its provisional employees over the last three years.

“We believe that the reductions will continue,” Wells Handy told the Council committee. “We are confident that the civil service culture in city agencies has changed. This is not merely our hope — indeed, the numbers and actions bear this out.”

The city had nearly 37,000 untested civil service employees before a 2007 ruling by the state’s highest court led the city to come up with a plan to reduce its provisional workforce. Under the plan, submitted to the state Civil Service Commission, her agency has just one more year to reduce the count to fewer than 9,500.

Since October 2008, the number of provisionals has fallen from 36,782 to 23,108, mostly through layoffs and the administration of more civil service exams, Wells Handy told council members. To continue reducing the city’s reliance on these workers, increasing the number of civil service exams administered is the “single biggest component of the plan,” she said.

The greatest obstacle, she testified, is that her agency remains responsible for civil service rules compliance for two non-city authorities, the New York City Transit Authority and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. A transfer of administration from the city to the authorities would slim the city’s provisional employee count by another 4,000 but first requires action by the state legislature. A spokesperson for the administrative services agency said “active discussions” are underway to move civil service administration for the authorities to a new commission.

The city appoints provisional employees when it faces a dearth of eligible candidates for a position. Legally, they may serve up to nine months. Many, however, go on to work for years and are unionized, often with reduced benefits.

The state’s Court of Appeals ruled that employing certain provisional employees longer than the nine-month limit is a violation of state law. In response, the state updated the law to give New York City five years to devise and follow a plan for coming into compliance. Starting in October 2013, no more than 5 percent of positions requiring civil service exams may be filled by provisional workers.

Wells Handy described steps her agency has taken toward getting more workers tested, including a new computerized testing center in Brooklyn, which allows for many more candidates to take exams in one sitting, and an “electronic item bank,” which assembles multiple variations on a single exam. These measures, Wells Handy said she hoped, would “make up for lost time.” During the last fiscal year the city administered 99 different civil service exams, each at a cost of $100,000. Wells said her agency is considering cost-cutting measures.

An official from the city’s largest municipal employee union, District Council 37, cautioned that increased testing may not be the only reason for declines in provisional workers so far. “How much of this can be attributed to an increase in civil service exams and how much from layoffs is unclear,” testified Evelyn Seinfeld, director of research and negotiations at the 120,000-member union. What’s more, she noted, much work formerly done by civil servants is now performed by private contractors. “The city has chosen to contract out work that is traditionally done by city employees.”

Under the plan submitted to the state commission, the Bloomberg administration has also been working to reduce the number of city employees who must take civil service exams in the first place. It has begun to combine multiple job titles, each of which previously required its own specialized exam. And it has successfully petitioned to add or reclassify nearly 200 job titles — covering thousands of city workers — for which future hires will not have to be tested. Included among those are some technology, engineering and public safety positions as well as 1,500 “confidential strategy planners.”

Municipal unions contend exempting so many job titles from civil service exams will allow for patronage and unqualified hires. But Wells Handy defended the creation of the new positions, which she said “allow agencies the flexibility to hire employees to work closely with management on policy and strategic planning issues, and to hire employees for positions requiring special qualifications.”

Update March 23, 2012: DCAS tells us that almost all of the agency’s progress in reducing the number of provisional workers so far has come through administration of exams. The agency says 13,179 city workers have passed exams to become full-fledged city employees under the plan to reduce provisional workers.

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