A Fair Policy?


Jacquie Amos-Norris says that Hinds County's personnel policy should better protect all employees.

If you serve at the will and pleasure of an elected official in Hinds County or the state, you have signed on for a job without protection if you are fired. Rep. Ed Blackmon Jr., D-Madison, plans to introduce legislation next year that would require counties to choose a blanket personnel policy that would either give all county employees employment protections or none at all.

Blackmon says the situation highlights a bigger issue in the state about employee rights in the private and public sectors.

"People say Mississippi is a right-to-work state, but that's a misnomer because it's a right-to-be fired state," Blackmon said.

Mississippi is one of 22 states with right-to-work laws that prohibit agreements between employers and labor unions that require employees to join a union as a term of their employment. Blackmon argues that, historically, employers used the state's right-to-work statute to suppress the African American vote because employers could threaten to fire their black workers if they wanted to vote.

Today, people who work for elected county officials may not have the same employment protections that other county public servants (such as public works, emergency services and the county attorney's office) have. State law gives county elected officials the authority to set their own personnel policies.

"This is now being used by the very people that the law was intended to intimidate," Blackmon said. "Right-to-work is a holy grail in Mississippi, and we are happy to tell prospective employers that you don't have to worry about unions or employee rights. You can fire anybody in Mississippi that works for you for any reason or no reason at all."

Speaking at a Hinds County Board of Supervisors meeting June 6, Jacquie Amos-Norris asked supervisors to consider changing the county's policy. In May, Hinds County Tax Collector Eddie Fair fired Norris. She doesn't think she should have been fired.

Fair fired Amos-Norris May 13, citing her unwillingness to crosstrain. Norris, however, claims that Fair fired her after she disagreed with him about her pay.

"Employees don't have rights," Amos-Norris said. "The only thing you are allowed to do is show up for work."

Fair denies the allegation that he fired Amos-Norris as an act of retaliation, but said he could not comment on a personnel issue. Fair maintains that he has merely adopted a personnel policy similar to his predecessors and believes that he is being unjustly singled out.

"I think it's a fair policy," he said. "If you have the right to hire, why shouldn't you have the right to fire?"

Fair's policy, like the majority of county elected officials, does not have a grievance and appeals process, and employees serve at the will and pleasure of the tax collector. County employees who work in departments not headed by an elected official can appeal to the county's human-resources department if they are fired or have workplace grievances. They then make their case to a human-resources committee, which makes a report to County Administrator Carmen Davis on whether the employee was wrongfully terminated. Davis then has final authority on the person's employment status.

Amos-Norris claims that Fair has too much authority and says his personnel policy creates a hostile environment and high employee turnover.

The Hinds County Board of Supervisors adopted Fair's personnel policy in 2004. Davis said the board has no authority over Fair's policy or over that or of any elected official.

"It's required by state law that they place it in with minutes of the board," Davis said. "It's not an approval action; it's a receiving action."

Hinds County Circuit Clerk Barbara Dunn and Hinds County Chancery Clerk Eddie Jean Carr can also terminate employees without a grievance or appeals process.

Carr, who spent two years working as a human-resources manager, said that she has not fired anyone during her eight-year term in office.

"I have an open-door policy with my staff," she said. "We don't have any issues or problems."

The Hinds County Sheriff's office does have an appeals process, but Sheriff Malcolm McMillin makes the final decision regarding employment.

Brenda Scott, president of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees, said that state employees serve at the will and pleasure of elected officials and did not think that county employees should be any different.

"That's a non-protected job title," Scott said. "... If I was the head of a new administration and there were a bunch of employees from that old administration, I should have authority to put my people in place. Otherwise, there is no loyalty to me, and I can't succeed."


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