Lawmakers seek to protect municipal jobs for veterans
By CHRISTIAN M. WADE | The Eagle-Tribune, North Andover, Mass. | Published: November 25, 2017
BOSTON (Tribune News Service) — The civil service system is a pipeline of municipal jobs for military veterans returning from active duty in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
But as cities and towns increasingly seek exemptions from state-mandated civil service requirements – which give preference to veterans for jobs as police officers and firefighters – veterans advocacy groups say ex-military job applicants are being edged out of the hiring process.
"Every city and town that has pulled out of civil service has drawn down on their veteran hiring," said Michael Devin, a retired Marine captain and director of Veteran's Edge, Massachusetts Fallen Heroes' advocacy group. "They'll say they want to continue giving veterans preference, but they're hiring civilians."
Lawmakers, whom seldom deny home rule petitions from communities to exempt them from civil service requirements, are beginning to take notice.
One proposal, backed by 60 lawmakers, would require all cities and towns to give preference to veterans in hiring public safety officers. It also would give preference to disabled veterans and to the children of deceased or disabled police officers and firefighters.
The state's independent Civil Service Commission would enforce the new mandate, and municipalities could be fined up to $5,000 a day for violating it.
"Civil Service is slowly eroding, it's going away," said Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, one of the bill's co-sponsors. "But as more communities opt out of civil service there are fewer opportunities for veterans to utilize the skills and training they have gained while putting their lives on the line. That's not right."
He said shifting away from hiring practices that give preference to those who've served in the military will hurt veterans trying to transition to civilian life.
Locally, the bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover and Reps. Paul Tucker, D-Salem and Linda Campbell, D-Methuen.
But Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said cities and towns are seeking more flexibility in hiring police and firefighters. Requiring them to give preference to veterans over all other job applicants makes it difficult to fill vacancies, he said.
"The civil service system is rigid and antiquated," Beckwith said. "Cities and towns are saying that it's preventing them from modernizing their workforce."
Civil service is a merit-based system under which state and municipal employees are hired and promoted. Applicants must pass an exam. Veterans receive preference for the exams and go to the top of the employment registry. They are also given extra "points" in the eligibility lists of civil service jobs.
"Unless you're a former member of the military it's extraordinarily difficult to be hired as a police officer," Beckwith said. "That creates a major challenge."
At least 22 communities – including Manchester, North Reading, Grafton and Burlington – have opted out of civil service for police jobs, according to the state Human Resources Division. Three communities – Marlborough, Wellesley, Westwood – have opted out for firefighters, according to the agency.
Other communities are seeking, or have received approval from the Legislature, to opt out civil service for specific positions, such as police and fire chiefs.
Currently, 145 of the state's 351 municipalities participate in the civil service system.
Campbell said she agrees that veterans should continue to get preference for municipal jobs.
"If there are two equally individuals seeking a job and one is a veteran, the veteran should get the job," said Campbell, a former Army captain. "It's simply the right thing to do and it’s something that is strongly supported by our communities."
Campbell said giving vets preference is more than just acknowledging their military service. Veterans have skills and training that other job seekers lack.
"Veterans bring so much to the table, in terms of reliability, initiative and work ethic," she said.
Last year, veterans groups fumed over a provision of Gov. Charlie Baker's municipal modernization bill that would have allowed cities and towns to exempt positions from civil service through a vote of the governing body instead of through special legislation, as is currently required.
While the Baker administration defended the proposal as a way to streamline municipal hiring practices, veterans groups blasted it as a backdoor attempt to replace veterans preference with patronage employment. That provision was stripped from the bill before it was approved by the House and Senate.
Devin, of Veterans' Edge, said his group has obtained hiring records showing that communities that opted out of civil service are overlooking vets for civilians, despite claims to the contrary. He said municipal leaders are using the exemptions to hire locals as a form of patronage.
"Civil service was created to eliminate patronage jobs doled out by politicians to their friends and supporters, but we're still seeing that today in cities and towns across the state," Devin said. "They're opting out so they can hire who they want to hire at the mayor or town manager's discretion."
Beckwith said cities and towns want to give preference to veterans, but don't want to be forced to overlook other qualified candidates.
"Certainly, we need to honor and respect veterans," Beckwith said. "But blocking communities from opting out of civil service would be a mistake."
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