Hutchinson’s state hiring freeze to thaw

Governor to track jobs, salaries through reports

Policies governing the so-called state hiring freeze are changing to give agency heads more discretion to fill positions that become vacant.

Under an executive order signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson the day after he took office in January 2015, agency heads had to ask permission to hire new employees in order to fill vacancies. However, starting Aug. 1, agencies will be able to hire employees to vacant positions without asking beforehand.

The point of the change is to look at state employment more holistically, said J.R. Davis, a spokesman for the governor.

“We had the hiring freeze, which is one position by one position, and we’ve kind of kept up with [state employment] through that,” he said. “This will help us really be able to figure out where these changes are taking place, where these increases are coming from and for us to be able to address those issues.”

Hutchinson will still keep watch over state employment by giving agencies total employee and salary thresholds based on agency-reported numbers on Aug. 1. From that point forward he will require the agency heads to submit reports on employment every month. High-paying positions will require approval from the governor’s office, Davis said.

“Agencies can have a little more discretion … so if they obviously need to get someone in or there’s some issues, they can go ahead and act within the thresholds, but they can’t pass those thresholds,” Davis said. “If they do, they have to go back to the governor and ask for more hires.”

The governor has said the hiring freeze resulted in about 1,400 positions going unfilled.

About 31,300 people work for state agencies and another 29,600 work for institutions of higher education, according to reports from the Bureau of Legislative Research.

State hiring practices have elicited frustration among some who submitted ideas for government improvement to Hutchinson’s MyIdea website,

One person, who claimed to be a retired state employee, said: “Early retirement could be offered to reduce the number of employees. Force employees to actually work or be terminated. The hiring freeze forces supervisors to tolerate bad employees because it takes too long to be unfrozen or there usually isn’t a good candidate pool.”

Lawmakers on the Personnel Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council said the change was news to them when contacted by a reporter, but they liked the plan.

“I think the hiring freeze has worked pretty well. I think it’s helped identify areas that are overstaffed,” said Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, who is co-chairman of the subcommittee. “It sounds like the plan that the governor has going forward is realistic and well thought out.”

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, who is vice chairman of the subcommittee, said she didn’t know of any problems caused by the hiring freeze.

“Generally when there are issues, people tend to call legislators to complain,” she said. “I’ve not gotten any type of that kind of complaint, and I suspect because it was soft.”

She said agency heads should be given additional discretion when hiring employees.

“It’s a good thing because at some point if you hire somebody to run an agency they need to be allowed to do it,” she said. “If an agency needs to hire somebody for a position, they should have some autonomy in making that decision.”

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