Merit pay bonuses promoted in post-union environment

Few state workers benefited in the first round of post-union pay changes, according to recently reported numbers.

Some 2,757 workers – roughly 1 in 14 of those eligible – received pay increases, the Wisconsin State Journal reported earlier this month. The payouts amounted to an average $2,757 or 6.52 percent.

More than half of the money distributed was in the form of lump sum payments that didn’t become part of the base pay of the workers.

In the private sector such a payment is more commonly known as a “bonus.” The Walker administration prefers to call it “discretionary merit compensation,” and a spokesman hinted Gov. Scott Walker would like to see the approach used at the local levels.

“Gov. Walker looks forward to continuing to create an environment that allows hard-working, high-achieving and outstanding employees at both the state and local levels to be financially rewarded,” said administration spokesman Cullen Werwie.

Journalists and Democrats will be checking to see if the bonus recipients end up making campaign contributions to Walker and other Republican candidates. Wisconsin would not be the first state in which “discretionary merit compensation” recipients end up financially supporting an incumbent administration.

The new approach is a result of the union-busting legislation passed in 2011 by the Republicancontrolled Legislature and Walker. The new system is likely to be around for a long time. Republicans drafted new legislative district boundary lines that seem to cement their control of the legislative branch at least through 2022.

There are concerns about the new approach. Personnel experts quoted by the newspaper said the administration’s guidelines leave a great deal of room for subjectivity. Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, was blunter.

‘‘We’ve got people in the same class working side-by-side, getting different amounts of money, and there’s no objective criteria as to why they gave (the increase) to Joe Smith rather than me,” Beil said.

Will the system, including the bonus approach, spread to local governments and school boards?

School boards across Wisconsin face difficult financial decisions as they deal with tough restrictions on their financial obligations. That’s especially true in compensation for teachers where wage scales have been largely dependent on education levels and years of service to the district.

It’s not uncommon that senior teachers with an advanced degree can make twice as much salary as new teachers with just bachelor’s degrees. It’s less expensive to run a school system with young teachers than a system with lots of experienced teachers.

The Walker administration repeatedly has said that in the post-union world, local governments and school boards now have the “tools” necessary to operate efficiently.

The “merit pay” concept also is lodged in the nationwide debate on testing students. Proponents argue that increased pay (maybe that includes bonuses) should go to teachers whose pupils score well on statewide standardized tests. There have been scandals in several states about teachers and administrators altering answers on the standardized tests.

Critics argue teachers will prefer to teach in schools serving the middle-class rather than those serving the poor and minorities if their pay and jobs are on the line.

But the bonus or merit approach may be attractive to those who value math teachers more than gym teachers.

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