Between a tight labor market, burnout and the pandemic, state agencies are struggling to find and keep workers.
Missouri’s social services agency is so short-staffed that child welfare workers are being assigned up to 50 cases at a time, more than double the normal caseload, said Lara Roberts, an organizer for Communications Workers of America Local 6355, a union that represents agency workers. Missourians calling with questions about food stamps or other benefits must wait on hold for up to six hours before getting answers, she said.
Taxpayers who rely on the agency are frustrated, Roberts said—and no wonder: “If they work and pay into this, they expect to have the service.”
Like private-sector employers, state agencies nationwide are struggling to find and keep workers amid a tight labor market and burnout because of the COVID-19 pandemic. And governors, like business owners, are proposing higher pay in a bid to recruit workers and convince them to stay, helped by federal aid and huge budget surpluses in most states.
They include even some Republican governors, who tend to frown on spending increases and can be openly antagonistic to state workers and their unions.
Take Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, who has proposed paying state workers at least $15 an hour starting next year and giving all state workers a 5.5% cost-of-living adjustment. Missouri’s minimum wage will be $11.15 next year.
“With many positions across state government facing turnover rates anywhere from 10-100 percent and vacancy rates from 30-10 percent, it is past time for us to make these investments in our state workforce, which remains one of the lowest paid in the nation," Parson said in a written, online statement announcing his plan.
Nationally, pay increases should help attract and retain workers who provide vital public services, from caring for people in state hospitals to clearing snow from highways and managing state prisons. But worker advocates argue that, in some cases, the proposals don’t go far enough.
“Raising the floor … is good. A 5.5% cost-of-living adjustment is good. Is it adequate? No,” said Richard von Glahn, policy director for Missouri Jobs with Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for workers in the state.
And some conservative lawmakers remain wary of increasing spending on public employees.
“I hope to be able to support [Parson’s plan], but it depends where the money is coming from,” said Missouri state Sen. Denny Hoskins, a Republican member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Hoskins said he’d prefer to pay for raises by eliminating vacant state agency jobs. “We have a bloated state government system,” he said.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, wants a 6% pay increase for all state workers plus additional raises for corrections officers and other hard-to-fill positions. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, wants an average 4% pay increase for state workers plus additional raises for corrections and law enforcement officers. And West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice has proposed 5% pay raises for state employees and public school teachers.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, wants to increase base pay and offer $3,500 bonuses to state workers at round-the-clock facilities such as state hospitals and veterans homes. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who will be replaced by Republican Glenn Youngkin next month, wants to raise teacher pay by 10% and entry-level state trooper pay by almost 8%. It will be up to Youngkin to carry out Northam’s ideas.
It’s not unusual for governors of either party to propose raises for state workers when the economy’s doing well, said Richard Auxier, senior policy associate in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of two Washington, D.C., think tanks, in an email to Stateline.
Right now, states also have billions of federal COVID-19 relief dollars to spend, he noted. “What’s happening now is different, in that the giant infusion of federal funds is allowing Republican governors to make large pay hikes.”
States can use the federal aid to cover payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care and human services workers.
The pay raise proposals must be approved by state legislatures. But many lawmakers of both parties are supportive.
South Dakota legislators applauded Noem last month when she proposed raises for corrections officers during her budget speech, noted Eric Ollila, executive director of the South Dakota State Employees Organization, a nonprofit that advocates for state employees.
“I’ve never seen our South Dakota legislature applaud giving state government employees, whatever their classification, extra funds,” he said. “That was pretty amazing.”
In Missouri, key GOP committee leaders have said they support Parson’s proposal. And Democratic lawmakers say it’s long overdue.
“I think that, very truthfully, government services are on the verge of falling apart if we don’t do this,” said state Rep. Peter Merideth, a Democrat and member of the House Budget Committee.
‘If you’re not competing, you’re losing’
State workers have been squeezed since the Great Recession more than a decade ago, budget experts say.
States employed about 4% fewer non-education workers in early 2020 than they did in early 2008.
When the pandemic hit, the fear that COVID-19 would trigger another deep recession led state leaders to enact layoffs, furloughs and hiring freezes. School closures and shutdowns also temporarily eliminated the need for some workers, such as school bus drivers and parks and recreation staff.
Although the economy quickly rebounded, the number of state employees hasn’t. There were about 273,000 fewer people working for state governments in November 2021 than in February 2020, about a 5% decrease, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Exclude education jobs, and states employed 75,800 fewer people in November, about a 3% decrease.
Many of the hardest-to-fill state and local government jobs today have been that way for years, said Joshua Franzel, managing director of the Mission Square Research Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that researches public sector workforce needs. Such positions include health care, corrections, police and skilled trades jobs.
But state agency heads, union leaders and human resources experts say it’s getting harder to recruit and retain workers. Like private sector workers, many public sector employees are burned out, retiring or quitting to take higher-paying jobs. Others have quit because of COVID-19 vaccination requirements imposed by some states.
About a third of state and local government workers surveyed in May by Mission Square Research Institute said working during the pandemic had made them consider changing jobs. About half said they didn’t think their pay was high enough, given the risk of working during the pandemic.
Pay at Missouri’s social services agency hasn’t kept up with the cost of living, Roberts said. “Our state workers have only gotten an 8% [pay] increase in the past decade.”
The Missouri Department of Social Services did not respond to Stateline’s requests for comment by publication time.
Some state agency leaders say they can no longer compete with the pay and benefits cities offer, let alone private companies.
At the Missouri Department of Transportation, a starting maintenance worker with a commercial driver’s license earns $15.25 an hour, said Patrick McKenna, director of the agency. That worker could earn over $18 an hour doing the same job for a Missouri city agency and over $25 an hour at a private company, he said.
“There’s so much demand for this type of work right now, and if you’re not competing, you’re losing,” McKenna said. “Ultimately, the public loses, because the work that we do is critical to the safety and economic activities of the entire state.”
The transportation department has been able to hire almost none of the 200-300 temporary workers it depends on to clear snow from roads in the winter, McKenna said.
Rising inflation has put additional pressure on governors to raise state employee pay. The consumer price index has jumped 6.8% over the past year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Beyond pay, state agencies could take other steps to make jobs more attractive, said Leslie Scott, director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives, a professional association for state human resources directors. For instance, they could try to give employees more flexible schedules or allow them to work from home.
How much is enough?
Next year, most states will have big surpluses to spend. Missouri has about $2.5 billion sitting in its general revenue fund, eight times more than average, according to the Missouri Independent.
That influx of cash must have influenced Parson’s proposal, said Merideth, the state representative. “This is an unprecedented situation of money in our coffers.” Parson’s office declined to comment further on the governor’s motivation.
Some budget experts and lawmakers caution that the long-term economic outlook is uncertain, however, and that the federal money won’t last.
“I know states and local governments and counties and schools are very flush with money now,” said Hoskins, the state senator. “I try to urge some caution about using this money for creating more expenses to the state, or to the local jurisdiction, instead of using it for one-time purposes. Because this money won’t be around forever.”
Some states have spent federal COVID-19 relief aid on bonuses for their workers. Virginia, for instance, has spent $45 million on bonuses for staff at state behavioral health and intellectual disability facilities. But human resources experts say bonuses won’t permanently solve staffing problems.
“These one-time funds are nice, and they’re a tool,” said Scott of the National Association of State Personnel Executives. “They’re not a long-term tool.”
Meanwhile, some worker advocates and agency leaders worry that the pay raises governors have proposed aren’t well targeted or don’t go far enough.
In Missouri, the transportation department’s maintenance workers already earn more than the proposed $15 hourly minimum. “It’s a step in the right direction,” McKenna said of the governor’s proposal. But, he added, “we still feel we need to address the market issue itself alongside that.”
The transportation department will continue to ask lawmakers for permission to use $60 million in highway funds to raise pay for hard-to-fill jobs, McKenna said. Lawmakers have denied the agency’s requested pay raises for years.
The state commission that oversees the agency sued the Parson administration this year, arguing that the agency should be able to use highway funds to raise pay without the legislature’s permission.