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Missouri Supreme Court upholds law stripping state workers of merit system protections

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Missouri Supreme Court upholds law stripping state workers of merit system protections

Oct 04, 2022 | 6:09 pm ET
By Rudi Keller
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Missouri Supreme Court upholds law stripping state workers of merit system protections
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The law in question is one of two major bills passed in 2018 at the urging of then-Gov. Eric Greitens to limit the rights of public employees. One bill, which required some employee unions to receive annual approval to withhold dues from paychecks, was declared unconstitutional last year by the Missouri Supreme Court (Jason Hancock/Missouri Independent).

Most Missouri state employees are “at-will” workers not entitled to seniority protections or grievance rights when they are fired, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

In an opinion that overturned a Cole County Circuit Court decision, the high court declared that a 2018 law repealing the merit system for most state workers is constitutional. Three unions representing state employees alleged the law illegally altered their collective bargaining agreements by denying them 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 employment terms.

“Crucially, all the (agreements) included savings clauses, recognizing the provisions of the (agreement) could not supersede law and allowing for modification of the (agreements) upon changes in the law,” Powell wrote.

Soon after the law was passed in 2018, the state Personnel Advisory Board issued new regulations eliminating seniority protections for layoffs and recalls; for-cause protections for suspensions, dismissals, and demotions; and grievance procedures for employment actions such as transfers.

Only employees who work in state penal and charitable institutions – prisons and hospitals – 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, or AFSCME; the Communications Workers of America, or CWA; and the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, challenged the law.

Each had contracts that required merit-system protections for the covered employees. Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem ruled last year that the contracts remained in force until renegotiated.

AFSCME represents employees of several agencies in two bargaining units — craft and maintenance positions and direct care. CWA represents employees in the Social Services and Health and Senior Services departments and the Office of Administration. SEIU represents probation and parole employees and patient care professionals in the Corrections and Mental Health departments and the Missouri Veterans Commission.

By withdrawing the merit system protections, the unions argued, the law violated constitutional provisions barring the legislature from impairing the obligations of contracts.

In upholding the law, Powell wrote that the two elements that define at-will work are an indefinite term of employment and the ability of the both parties to end the employment relationship at any time for no stated reason. 

“But grievance procedures, seniority protections, and for-cause requirements are not necessarily inconsistent with at-will employment,” Powell wrote. “These terms and conditions of employment are inconsistent with at-will employment only if they limit the right to terminate employment at any time without cause.”

In its ruling, the court directed Beetem to hold additional hearings to determine the subjects that could be included and those that must be excluded from future state labor contracts.

The law being challenged was one of two major bills passed in 2018 at the urging of then-Gov. Eric Greitens to limit the rights of public employees. One bill, which required some employee unions to receive annual approval to withhold dues from paychecks, was declared unconstitutional last year by the Missouri Supreme Court.