Bhatia poses possible constitutional issues in single-employer bill
SAN JUAN – Popular Democratic Party (PDP) Senate Minority Leader Eduardo Bhatia expressed concern Friday that the bill turning the government into a single employer would result in usurpation of the legislature’s powers. The legislature defines the responsibilities of each government entity.
The legislator believes that if Senate Bill 213 (counterpart to House Bill 454) provides for moving all employees from one agency to another, then “de facto, what is being done is transforming a government agency, and what I am telling you is that it is up to the Legislature to transform government agencies.”
Bhatia made his remarks during the first public hearing on the Administration and Transformation of Human Resources in Government Act and as part of his questions to Labor Secretary-designate Carlos Saavedra.
In a heated exchange between the two—in which Senate Government Committee Chairman Miguel Romero intervened and asked Bhatia to respect the deponent—the PDP spokesman questioned the head of the labor department about a potential constitutional clash, the reasons for implementing the single employer concept and whether worker mobility would be forced in nature.
“[The bill aims] to protect public employment… There are no changes to government agencies,” Saavedra said ruling out a constitutional clash.
As for mobility, he explained that this is a “new concept” because it allows not only the transfer of workers, but also promotions, although he acknowledged that the government is currently able to transfer employees between agencies.
He also said he will seek that transfers are voluntarily requested by the public employee, but also that it depend on the agencies’ needs as well as the employee’s place of residence, seniority and opinion. All would be determined by the new agency that is created to substitute the Human Resources Administration’s Office of Training and Counsel in Labor Affairs (OCALARH by its Spanish acronym).
“An advice for this government: excessive centralization is bad for governments. That is why government entities are created. We are centralizing everything. This centralization of how an agency’s employees will be chosen will decide which employees are needed in all agencies; I think it is very dangerous for Puerto Rico and I leave you with that thought,” said Bhatia at the end of his round of questions.
The president of the Senate’s government commission—which analyzes the bill—asked about the difficulties of implementing a classification and compensation plan in all government agencies, as the project aspires to.
OCALARH director Nydza Irizarry stated that, by granting mobility to employees under the bill, her agency could have more employees to collaborate in the classification and remuneration plan, a matter on which discussions have begun towards the creation of a work schedule.
Romero also asked what would happen to public employees who are sent to work in a participatory public-private partnership (PPP). The designated labor secretary said that the House intends to amend the bill to protect the benefits and salaries of public employees who go to work for a participatory PPP.
Along that same line of questioning, PDP senator Aníbal José Torres asked what would happen to a public employee if that PPP to which he is assigned concludes its contract with the government, if it were possible for him to return to public service. In this regard, Saavedra only insisted that an employee’s benefits would continue when sent to work at a PPP.
“So we have no assurance that the employee will return to the government. There are no guarantees [of returning to public service],” Torres said.
During the first part of the public hearing, Office of Management and Budget (OGP by its Spanish acronym) director José Marrero stated that the single employer could result in savings of up to $400 million in training, since now it will be provided through an agreement with the University of Puerto Rico (UPR). However, when questioned by Romero, Marrero accepted that they do not know how much training at the UPR will cost because they have not had discussions on the matter.
As for savings from reductions in terms of employees and administrative expenses, OGP estimated that it could amount up to $101.8 million.
During the afternoon the Senate government commission would hear the island’s union sector, which has already expressed its opposition to the single employer bill.
The bill is simultaneously analyzed in the House, where two public hearings have been held and amendments have been made.