We hear a lot about "reform" these days, especially when it comes to health care. Then there's tax reform, welfare reform, tort reform, campaign finance reform and more. We could also use entitlement reform, as Social Security and Medicare are headed for the rocks.
But the Chiquita Johnson case makes clear that we also desperately need employment reform.
How is it that an employee being forced to resign for, among other things, abusing her purchasing privileges can seemingly have her employer over a barrel?
Why else would the city of Augusta agree to pay the erstwhile and utterly failed city attorney nine months' severance -- three more months than her contract calls for -- as well as make good on her lease of an apartment and, most outrageously, to write a letter of reference for her?
If an employee is essentially forced out, why should employers be forced to lie about that? Doesn't that just kick the can down the road -- and burden a future employer?
That's basically what happened to Augusta in Johnson's hiring in 2007. She had been fired nine months before by a state agency. Augusta officials say that agency told them she left voluntarily. In fact, records suggest she was fired for misuse of her purchasing card.
Augusta officials may want to claim they were had -- but her resignation this week includes a stipulation that Augusta will claim in the future that she voluntarily resigned. And they'll even throw in a "neutral" letter of reference, whatever that is ("Of all our employees in the past 50 years, she was without a doubt one of them"?).
City officials insist people who object to this arrangement -- which is costing taxpayers more than $93,000 -- just don't know how things work.
Well, we do know. And they don't work.
The city needs a better contract next time, one that protects the interests of taxpayers for once.
In the broader picture, employers ought to be able to be honest about why a person is fired. If the person is fired for good reason, the employer shouldn't be punished for it.
The city should never again agree in a contract to give anyone six months' severance if they're fired. Meanwhile, the definition of "fired for cause" ought to explicitly include excessive and unwarranted purchases -- and, in the case of a city attorney, the proffering of legal advice that is so patently and absurdly illegal and/or unconstitutional that a fifth-grader would know it. Example: an attempt to bar reporters -- but no one else -- from chatting with commissioners in the commission chambers or hallway, as Johnson attempted to do.
And finally, employers should be free to fire ineffective, incompetent and irresponsible employees without abject fear of being sued.
Don't our current laws and regulations protect, and even reward, incompetence?