Uptick in at-will workers worried science museum leadership
Posted October 30, 2013
Updated November 6, 2013
Raleigh, N.C. — After learning earlier this year that his top leaders would lose job protections that would normally prevent political hiring and firing, the director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences moved quickly to ensure the action wouldn't affect the institution's ongoing accreditation process.
Six museum staffers directly responsible for research, exhibits and collections were among those designated as at-will employees by Gov. Pat McCrory on July 1, when he expanded the number of state employees exempt from State Personnel Act protections.
Although some of these positions now include "loyalty to the governor" as part of the job, science museum director Emlyn Koster said he's not concerned the exemptions will cause any increased politicization at the museum.
"I understand the premise of the question is, 'There may be and there could be and so what if?' But this place stands on the shoulders of 134 years of scientific integrity and educational know-how," Koster said. "It was the purview of the governor and the legislature. If they wanted to reduce the number or keep the number the same or increase the number – that's their prerogative."
Accreditation agency only looking for negative impacts
Under Gov. Bev Perdue, only the museum director was designated exempt. But this year, McCrory exercised his expanded ability to exempt about 1,000 more state workers from the civil service protections of the State Personnel Act, most notably their ability to appeal arbitrary firings.
Days after he first learned of the exemptions from his superiors within the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Koster contacted officials at the American Alliance of Museums to find out whether the new at-will positions would have any impact on the institution's accreditation, which is currently underway.
WRAL News reviewed email correspondence between Koster and the AAM, which concluded McCrory's move did not directly cause problems for accreditation.
"If we saw during an accreditation review that [as] a result of this set up was causing high turnover and extended vacancies in essential positions (or other symptoms) which in turn were putting collections or visitors at risk or negatively impacting the museum's ability to fulfill its mission, the Visiting Committee or Accreditation Commission might raise it as an issue of concern," Julie Hart, AAM senior director of museum standards and excellence, wrote on Aug. 14.
In an interview with WRAL News this week, Koster said that, after doing his due diligence, the AAM's confirmation made this a "past-tense issue" for him.
"I have no concern about this," he said. "I understand how concern could be imagined, but what I did in the first few days was check this out and move on."
Exempting a position means an employee can be fired for any reason – or none at all. Some at-will jobs don't have to be publicly posted, and the managers aren't required to select a candidate from a "pool of the most qualified persons."
For these so-called "policy-making exempt" positions, state law says loyalty to the governor is "reasonably necessary for the job."
Under the last administration, none of the museum's employees were designated policy-making exempt. Now, Senior Scientist Meg Lowman and Deputy Director for Operations Alvin Braswell serve in policy-making exempt positions. Koster's position also carries that policy-making exemption to match other division director-level jobs throughout DENR, although that wasn't the case before 2013.
At-will workers in other states still get protections
Koster's inquiry also revealed that North Carolina museums are no exception when it comes to employing "exempt" scientists and researchers.
All Indiana state employees, for example, are at-will, as are the curators at museums under the University of Alabama.
But the emails from AAM officials also mention Illinois and New Mexico, where at-will workers are afforded at least some protection from arbitrary termination, whether through personnel policies or the oversight of an appointed board.
"The question regarding the state you are asking about is: What is their motivation for doing this," Stuart Ashman, former secretary of cultural affairs for New Mexico, wrote in response to the inquiry. "If it is to have control over those positions, that may not be a good thing."
Although Koster was satisfied with that response, other employees still raised concerns days later.
After learning of the newly exempt positions from colleagues, herpetology curator Bryan Stuart initially proposed hosting an "open conversation with the research staff so as to elevate the conversation above hallway gossip."
"My intention was to rally support behind the seven of you," Stuart wrote of the new at-will workers, "and to offer myself as a non-exempt (and therefore less vulnerable) employee who is willing to raise the importance of maintaining this research integrity with our leadership."
Stuart had no comment on the emails when reached at his office Wednesday. But emails show Koster advised Stuart at the time that such a move would be inappropriate and that any large-scale appeal of the exemptions would be handled by him.
Two staffers appealing at-will positions
After sharing his findings with the museum's advisory board, the nonprofit Friends of the Museum Board and his superiors at DENR, Koster decided not to pursue any appeal.
Other museum employees, however, have appealed their designations individually.
Lowman and Director of Strategic Positioning David Kroll are both contesting the state's move on the grounds that their positions don't meet the legal criteria for an exempt designation. They're among only four employees out of the almost 1,000 newly exempt workers to do so, according to administrative court records.
Lowman is on a research trip in the Amazon, and Kroll declined to comment. But Jack Nichols, who is representing both museum employees in administrative court, said the state must still follow the rules of the State Personnel Act when exempting employees.
"It's not like I don't believe certain positions should be exempt," Nichols said. "It's true, the governor needs to have some positions that are loyal to him, but you can't just take an exempt label and stick it on someone's position."
Koster points out that he made it clear in his correspondence with his staff – as did DENR human resources – that employees have a right to appeal the designations handed down by the governor.
Regardless of the outcome of the museum workers' cases, he said he's confident his staff will continue to conduct the sound science, exhibitions and educational programs they're known for.
"I think we may be making a bigger deal about this in 2013 than actually, with respect, is worth it," Koster said. "Because history shows that government can make these decisions, and history shows that they have no consequence on the activities of the museum."