Employment At Will

Employment at will means you can be fired at any time. Here’s a lesson:

On his first day at work, the new sheriff called 27 employees into his office, fired them, and had snipers stand guard on the roof as they were escorted out the door.

The move Monday by Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill provoked an angry reaction from newly elected county commission chairman Eldrin Bell.

Bell, a former Atlanta police chief, said Hill’s action violated the county’s civil service rules.

“I have assured the discharged employees that their county will take every administrative and legal action to ensure they are treated fairly,” he said.

Georgia is an employment at will state and, despite what the County Commission Chairman says, in Georgia sheriff’s deputies serve at the pleasure of the Sheriff, which is why you rarely see deputies go against the incumbent Sheriff. While this is an extreme example, it is not uncommon.

Some deputies and jailers in several area counties are spending their Christmas looking for a new job.

As is typically the case when a new sheriff takes over, a few people from the old regime are let go. In most sheriff’s departments, employees work at the pleasure of the sheriff and can be released without a cause being cited.

Brian Allen, a Dodge County jailer for the past 12 years, said Sheriff-elect Lawton Douglas notified him by mail that Allen would not be retained come Jan. 1, when each new sheriff would take office. But Allen said he isn’t upset.

“That’s the chance you take when you work for a sheriff’s department,” he said.

Allen is looking for employment at other sheriff’s departments, but the uncertainty of the job is making him consider other careers. He has worked part time installing satellite dishes and said he may turn that into a full-time business.

Allen and other sheriff’s employees released in the coming changeover said they ought to have job protection when a new sheriff takes office.

“I believe there should be some kind of merit system,” said Kirk Hartwell, a Laurens County deputy for eight years until Sheriff-elect Bill Harrell notified him by mail that he would not be retained. “We are hard-working, honest people with families, and we shouldn’t have to put our jobs on the line every four years.”

Harrell declined to comment. He released eight of the department’s 75 employees.

In Twiggs County, Darren Mitchum. the incoming sheriff, released four deputies and one jailer from a department of about 30 employees. Three of those deputies also ran for sheriff, but Mitchum said that had nothing to do with his decision. He pointed out that he retained one deputy who ran against him.

The article also says that

A sheriff’s ability to fire personnel, however, isn’t absolute. According to the Web site for American Civil Liberties Union, the group helped four Jefferson County deputies win a $1.25 million judgment against a sheriff who allegedly fired the deputies for not supporting him during the election. That case was later settled on appeal.

Terry Norris, executive vice president of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said it’s basically up to each sheriff to decide whether to implement a merit system. But the association recommends that sheriffs develop their own system and not place deputies under a county system. Falling under a county merit plan, he said, would allow outside forces to reverse personnel decisions.

“Hiring and firing and discipline needs to be the exclusive authority of the office of sheriff,” he said.

Again, while the case in Clayton County is extreme, in 2002, a Sheriff-elect was gunned down on the orders of the incumbent sheriff. The Sheriff-elect had waged a campaign against the incumbent sheriff on the issue of corruption.

Better safe than sorry, I guess.

About the author

Erick Erickson

View all posts

1 Comment

  • At-will employment is one thing — cleaning out all the white officers from upper management and replacing them with blacks is quite another.

    According to CNN:

    “The firings had a racial overtone. Hill was among a spate of black candidates elected last year in the county once dominated by rural whites. The county seat was the setting for the fictional plantation Tara in “Gone With The Wind.”

    The fired employees included four of the highest-ranking officers, all of them white. Hill told the newspaper their replacements would be black.”