Madison - St. Clair Record

Monday, September 23, 2019

State Board of Elections moves to merit-based pay system versus step compensation favored by unions


By John Breslin | Jul 5, 2018

CHICAGO – The Illinois State Board of Elections (SBE) has introduced a merit-based pay structure for its employees and is able to do so because of its uniquely independent status within the state.

The nearly 70 employees of the SBE will be subject to annual review of their performance, set to take place in September. It is able to switch from a step system to merit-based because the employees are not members of a union, unlike other state workers, the board said. 

Step compensation is based on an acceptable level of performance and length of service, and is the system used for all other state employees. It is the system favored by state workers' union American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employee (AFCSME) - an organization still stinging from the recent Janus v. AFSCME decision that declared unconstitutional the fees Illinois and other states forced non-union public sector workers to represent them at the bargaining table.

The move towards changing the way staff is compensated at the SBE began after a July 2016 data breach, Matt Dietrich, the Board's public information officer, told the Record.

Russian hackers were accused of breaching the state's online voter database and were able to steal some 70,000 records before being caught and shut down.

During and after the breach, the "SBE staff agency-wide, and particularly members of the IT department, performed especially well in identifying, closing and informing the public about the intrusion," Dietrich said.

"Board members believed the agency needed a way to reward employees when they made significant contributions to its success," he explained. "They also believed SBE needed a compensation model that would allow it to compete with other public and private sector employers for top IT and tech talent."

While other state workers have the right to join a union and collectively bargain for wages, those employed by the state board of elections cannot.

"In recognition of the ISBE’s unique status under the Illinois Constitution as a bipartisan, independent body, in 2013 the General Assembly codified the longstanding practice that our agency’s workforce would not have the right to join a union or collectively bargain for wages and benefits," Dietrich said. "The Board’s adoption of this compensation plan is consistent with this legal requirement."

The change is understood to have been led by Board Chairman Bill Cadigan, a Republican, and Vice Chairman John Keith, a Democrat.

Under the plan, which went into effect July 1, staff evaluations will take place each year on Sept. 15.

"Scheduling annual evaluations as such will allow for increased efficiency during budgetary preparations for the subsequent fiscal year," according to a memo sent to the board by Jeremy Kirk, director of administrative services and chief financial officer.

"The merit-based evaluations are similar to that utilized by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)," Kirk added.

The board adopted the proposal that employees judged to be "unsatisfactory" or "below standard" will be allowed six months to improve performance, which will then be reviewed.

If an employee has not improved his or her performance over that period, they face disciplinary action or even termination. Further, employees found to be unsatisfactory or below standard will not receive a cost of living adjustments (COLAs) to their pay.

Workers judged to be "standard" will receive no merit-based salary, but will be eligible for COLA payments.

Employees receiving an evaluation of “above standard” will receive a salary increase of 1.5 percent, while those found to be "outstanding" will see an increase of three percent in their salary. 

The COLAs will be based on the annual inflation rate, which has averaged just over 2 percent over the last 10 years. The annual COLA will be a lump-sum non-pensionable payment, the board decided.

"Lastly, in order for this merit-based compensation plan to be effective, there must be a cultural change within the agency," Kirk stated in his memo, which was seen by the Record.

"This change will involve not only the way supervisors/directors evaluate staff, but also the way that staff will perceive the evaluation system and ultimately the overall compensation plan," Kirk stated.

In the run up to the establishment of the new system, the board's Executive Director Steve Sandvoss met with the all supervisors and directors to explain that they will have to take a "more active role in managing staff in order to produce effective evaluations that account for all aspects of an employee’s performance."

Further, a meeting of all employees was held prior to July 1 to reveal details of the new system and "convey the cultural change being implemented and address any questions staff may have." Staff also received an email.

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