It was literally standing room only when SEIU members and other staff packed a public hearing about work rules for employees of the Metro Public Health Department in Nashville.
Dozens of public health workers including disease investigators, nurses, and clerks were in attendance to support a presentation by Local 205 which analyzed a management proposal which could put promotions, jobs and quality services at risk.
"I've worked for the Health department for 27 years and what the administration is proposing with some of these civil service rule changes is pretty radical," said Mattie Greer, a public health nurse at the East clinic. Administrators proposed a new rule which would eventually make all grant-funded positions in the department (approximately 60% of the workforce) ineligible for rehire, severance pay, recall rights, and appeals.
SEIU's presentation, which was developed by a committee of Health Department union members, supported some of the proposed rule changes but were strongly opposed to management's proposal to cut employee civil service rights. The union opposed other management proposals related to bereavement leave, overtime pay, complaint procedures and disciplinary appeal rights.
One unusual proposal by management would require MPHD staff to disclose if they serve on the board of any other organization - even if they were unpaid volunteers. "If I am on the board at my church or an officer of the PTO or a volunteer at Planned Parenthood, I would have to tell my employer about it or I could be asked to resign," said Mia Jackson, a Program Specialist. "That seems a little bit of an overreach and intrusive for a department that is supposed to respect individuals' privacy."
SEIU hasn't just been in opposition to management proposals - they've tried to be part of the solution. For nearly a year, union members have been developing rule proposals of their own and several of those were accepted. The need for more employee input has been evident at the MPHD, which has been at the center of various media controversies over the last three years. Exit interviews by Health Department employees have been scathing and there have been several recent major shakeups in the upper-level management team.
"With all the turnover at the Health Department and with good people being passed over for promotions, there needs to be some soul-searching about what's working and not working," said Mark Naccarato, an SEIU organizer who presented the employee presentation at the public hearing. "While some of the rule changes management is proposing are progressive and attempt to solve legitimate problems, several of their ideas like the one that takes away civil service rights for staff on recurring grants are really just a case of management trying to make the rank and file pay for the mistakes they've made."
The presentation by SEIU lasted about 20 minutes, at which point the department's director, Dr. Bill Paul, tried to respond to SEIU's concerns. The board members asked some follow-up questions and prompted a good discussion centered around employees' rights and the changing nature of grant-funded public services.
The Board of Health did not vote on any proposals at the public hearing and plans to continue the discussion on the proposed rule changes at their next regularly-scheduled meeting in mid-September.