The de Blasio administration's decision not to hold in-person tests while its focus remains on limiting the spread of the coronavirus is a realistic response, one leading merit-system advocate said, but can't take root as a permanent policy once the crisis has passed.

"My assumption is they will go back to giving competitive exams in a classroom at some point," Organization of Staff Analysts Chairman Robert J. Croghan said in a May 20 phone interview.

'Beyond Awkward Now'

An activist at the Civil Service Merit Council who more than four decades ago helped push the city back to the extensive use of traditional exams after they were discontinued for three years during the fiscal crisis, Mr. Croghan acknowledged, "In this time of the coronavirus, demanding in-person testing is beyond awkward; it's dangerous."


BOB CROGHAN: Patience now, vigilance later.

But once the situation has improved enough to make it prudent to resume traditional classroom exams, "For us, the concern long-term is the test really has to be competitive."

The investigative website The City was the first to report the extension of a delay in exams that began March 17, three days before Governor Cuomo issued his "pause" order that placed the entire state in a kind of lock-down to guard against the spread of the virus.

The rationale for continuing it is obvious: besides concerns about multiple infections occurring if test-takers were placed in classrooms in large groups—the city's five testing centers can each accommodate up to 200 students, The City reported—hiring has been frozen except for public-safety positions and other "essential" jobs.

A spokesman for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, Nick Benson, told The City that when in-person testing resumed, seating capacity at city exam centers would be reduced by nearly 70 percent, and that the agency was exploring "online testing options."  

An Unhealthy Trend

Permitting testing without monitors overseeing the competitors has pitfalls that include their making use of materials that they might be prohibited from bringing into a classroom, as well as getting "help" from friends or relatives who already hold the jobs for which they are vying. 

But even before such possibilities were presented after the pandemic disrupted the municipal jobs process, Mr. Croghan was concerned about a trend by DCAS to phase out traditional multiple-choice written tests in favor of education-and-experience exams, in which candidates are rated on whether their schooling and employment history satisfies the requirements for a job title.

"Very often you'll have a large number of people who score 100," he said, meaning the test did little to distinguish among the candidates."Many of our civil-service exams do not find the person who's best-qualified for the job."

He added, "Right now, we're going to be very patient." That will change whenever the crisis subsides enough to resume classroom testing.

'Good Reason' Last Time

The need for vigilance is rooted in the last time when civil-service testing was on hold for a prolonged period, beginning with the 1975 fiscal crisis and continuing for much of 1978.

"There was a very good reason," Mr. Croghan said, referring to the tens of thousands of people who were laid off to steer the city away from the brink of bankruptcy. Many of those people returned to their old agencies by 1977, often through the U.S. Comprehensive Employment Training Act, under which they were placed on the Federal payroll.

To restore them and others who were not brought back under CETA to the city payroll, "preferred lists" were created that gave them first crack at positions that otherwise would have been filled from competitive exams.

But particularly after Ed Koch became Mayor in 1978, Mr. Croghan said, the city began using two titles whose responsibilities were loosely defined, Staff Analyst and Associate Staff Analyst, to move persons favored by agency managers into jobs where other candidates had better qualifications.

Battle Over Provisionals

The lack of testing for that three-year period also led to large numbers of provisional employees—those who had not come off lists based on competitive exams—being hired. Although under state law they were not supposed to hold those jobs for more than nine months, the lack of lists from which to replace them led to many staying long enough to become valued by their agencies. Managers were reluctant to replace them with people who had demonstrated aptitude for the jobs based on their test scores but would have to be trained in the responsibilities of the positions.

Mr. Koch sometimes defended the growing use of provisionals—they eventually peaked at roughly 37,000—by pointing out with a certain glee that, unlike those whose civil-service status gave them protection if they incurred a supervisor's wrath, the provisionals could be fired at any time without cause, compelling them to be more compliant.

Halfway through his 12 years as Mayor, the unions got a law enacted in Albany that gave provisionals who worked at least two years in a job the right to a hearing before they could be fired. Before that occurred, Mr. Croghan recalled, the battle was fought to force the Koch administration to use a list based on an October 1978 exam for both Staff Analyst and Associate Staff Analyst positions.

An In-House Edge 

At the time, he said, the forerunner of DCAS, the city Personnel Department, allowed agencies to protect provisionals by using a questionnaire to determine eligibility to take the Staff Analyst exam, then instructing them on how to fill it out. Those coming in off the street, who did not have that inside information, were at a considerable disadvantage: according to Mr. Croghan, out of 6,000 candidates for the open-competitive test, half were disqualified from taking it because of low scores on the questionnaire.

In response, District Council 37's Social Service Employees Local 371 formed the Committee to Move the List to pressure Personnel to use the hiring roster comprised by those who passed the test after scoring high enough on the questionnaire to be allowed to take it to fill Staff Analyst positions that were vacant or held by provisionals. After the union was split by infighting in 1981, its work was taken over by the newly formed OSA, which was headed from the start by Mr. Croghan   

Among the 1,635 persons on the list, he said, before it expired around 1983, every one of them had been offered a job as either a Staff Analyst or Associate Staff Analyst. 

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