Do you want to see an employee fired for telling a supervisor about factual inaccuracies going uncorrected in the public sphere? Or about calling attention to evidence that should be considered in an agency decision? HB429, currently in the Utah State Senate after passing in the House, would end all new “career-service“ hires as of Jan 1, 2025. It continues the path of previous legislation converting more and more merit system positions to “at-will” employment — termination at the pleasure of the boss.

“Career-service” employment provides merit-based standards for hiring and prevents post-probationary employees from being fired or demoted without independent review and impartial proceedings. If their service is satisfactorily professional, career service employees cannot be fired simply because a superior doesn’t like the information or evidence shared by the employee or wants a friend in the position.

A previously dominant argument against career-service status was that dismissing poorly performing employees was too difficult. Reforms recommended by 2010 and 2021 legislative audits have now substantially reduced that concern. Managers have received better training to evaluate and measure employee performance, administrative hearing processes have been streamlined for speedier resolution and some kinds of administrative decisions are no longer appealable.

The new arguments are specious. At-will employment is now said to make employment more attractive by looking like private employment and ending the stereotype of sluggish government bureaucrats. It is said to be modern, efficient, effective and attractive for younger workers who do not want long-term employment because they change jobs every 312 years on average and prefer flexible hours, telework, portable retirement and help with higher education costs. These features are not incompatible with merit-based positions, and there are many younger workers who are committed to public service and would value job security in return for competence and professionalism.

Exceptions to at-will employment are already given to those whose jobs require administration of federal programs, such as Medicaid. In HB429, they are also given to those in law enforcement. Both types of jobs are understood to be complex and require expertise and continuity. This rationale applies to far more than these two kinds of positions, however, and often where there is no close counterpart in the private sector.

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Supporters of HB429 argue that state and federal laws already protect employees from discrimination against protected classes of person, including whistleblowers, and apply several layers of review. Such reviews, however, focus on procedural correctness. Nothing protects an employee who draws on technical expertise to challenge a supervisor’s intended decision that the employee believes deserves more thorough assessment.

With state policy becoming more sharply polarized, we see a greater risk for employees who take unpopular positions that they believe are in the public interest. The public will benefit from employees who are candid and able to present best evidence to their superiors without jeopardizing their jobs. A nonpartisan civil service system rewards professionalism over loyalty. Career service protections should at least be maintained for future employees, if not restored and expanded. Fourteen House Republicans joined all the Democrats in opposing HB429, so protecting state workers is not a partisan issue. It is simply bad policy that should not become law.

Susan Olson is a retired political science professor, and Dixie Huefner is a retired special education professor. They are writing on behalf of the Utah Citizens’ Counsel, a nonpartisan group of seniors with broad public policy experience.