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State and local governments facing their own labor shortages

The impacts of COVID-19 on the workforce have been well documented, as employees fled their full-time jobs as part of the big quit and employers struggled to replace them.

But a March report on the impact of the pandemic on the public sector included a startling statistic: More than half of all local and state officials surveyed said they were considering quitting their jobs.

In the national survey, the latest of four conducted by the MissionSquare Research Institute during the public health crisis, 36% of respondents said the pandemic had caused them to consider changing jobs. Additionally, 32% of workers said they plan to retire, while 28% said they plan to leave the workforce in the foreseeable future.

“For those considering leaving the workforce altogether, burnout is No. 1, followed by (wanting) more time to do things that bring them joy,” said chief executive Joshua Franzel. “Those who voluntarily quit their jobs to do something else, stress caused them to leave voluntarily, and then also concerns about serving the public during an ongoing pandemic.”

National, state and local employment levels fell about 3.5% between February 2020 and February 2022, according to MissionSquare, which represents approximately 695,000 positions. And in January, job postings for state and local government positions hit their highest rate in two decades.

Massachusetts was not spared. The Executive Office of Health and Human Services has seen the largest downward trend in staffing within the executive branch since the start of the pandemic, according to the state’s Employee Diversity Dashboard.

In the last quarter of fiscal 2019, there were just over 22,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees under HHS. But in the second quarter of fiscal 2022, that number had fallen to 20,996, a decline of about 4.6%. Data from the third quarter of fiscal 2022 shows that levels now stand at approximately 21,047 FTE employees.

The Department of Developmental Services, which provides support for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is an important part of this change. The department fell from 5,921 FTE employees in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019 to 5,187 FTE employees in the third quarter of fiscal 2022, according to the state dashboard, a decline of 12.4%.

At the Department for Children and Families, headcount grew from approximately 4,250 FTE employees in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019 to 4,068 in the second quarter of fiscal 2022 and 4,105 in the third. There was also a decline in staffing in the Department of Youth Services, with 824 FTE employees in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019 and 739 FTE employees in the third quarter of fiscal 2022.

Some other secretariats have seen slight staffing increases over the past few years, such as the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, which went from 893 FTE employees in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019 to 979 FTE employees in the third quarter of the 2022 financial year.

Under HHS, the Department of Public Health swelled slightly in the early years of the pandemic, with 2,840 FTE employees in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019 and about 3,005 in the third quarter of fiscal 2021. The department now has approximately 2,909 FTE employees, fiscal year 2022 data shows.

In response to an interview request on staffing shortages, a spokesperson for the Executive Office of Administration and Finance said in an email that the state, like the private sector, has faced particular employment challenges for social services and direct care positions during the pandemic.

Overall executive headcount increased from 42,682 FTE employees in the fourth quarter of 2021 to 41,320 in the second quarter of fiscal 2022, which Administration and Finance partially attributed to “voluntary and involuntary separations associated with an executive order requiring COVID -19 vaccines.

Last month, Governor Charlie Baker signed a supplementary budget for fiscal year 2022 that included about $400 million in rate improvements for human service providers.

“The administration is continuously working to ensure sufficient staffing at its agencies,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The Human Resources Division provides support to agencies in their recruitment and retention efforts, so that the Commonwealth can continue to maintain a talented workforce that effectively serves Commonwealth residents.”

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito reminded the local government advisory committee last week that the administration’s $3.5 billion economic development bill includes $20 million to fund community training grants. local public workforce.

“It is to help you with your own workforce and to help you integrate people who might not see themselves in municipal service, but who might leave another profession in the private sector, that the experience is clearly relevant and could be useful to you”, Polito mentioned.

Rep. Josh Cutler, chair of the Joint Workforce and Labor Development Committee, has received calls from constituents struggling to find care for loved ones. He said the budget proposal passed by the House last month would invest in key areas of human services, including through a new tuition waiver program for Department of Mental Health workers.

Cutler also co-chaired the state’s Commission on the Future of Work, which released a report on its findings in July. Speaking with experts and residents, Cutler said it has become clear that the ability to work often depends on access to other services.

“One of the overriding sentiments that kept coming up was child care and other wraparound services, things like broadband access,” Cutler said. “If you live in certain parts of the state, it’s not certain that you have access to quality broadband.”

At the same time, the available labor pool is tighter than in the past due to an aging population and accelerating retirements, which have reached a 20-year high among workers of the State and local authorities in the summer of 2020.

“The median age of state and local government employees is about three to five years older than private sector workers,” said Gerald Young, senior research analyst at MissionSquare. “And when talking to these human resources people, more than half of them say the biggest wave of retirements to come is still in the next few years.”

MissionSquare’s research identified a few potential strategies to help state and local governments retain employees, such as increasing compensation; show appreciation for workers through personal recognition and increased flexibility; provide financial resources such as increased pension contributions; prioritize the safety and mental health of employees; and emphasize the impact of staff work in the community.

Some states have also begun considering ways to make it easier for retired professionals to return to the fold. Last year, Bay State lawmakers overturned a Baker veto to increase the limit on the number of hours public retirees can work from 960 hours a year to 1,200.

“Often in the private sector, if there’s a need to fill staffing gaps especially in the short term, they look to bring back retirees, rehire retirees,” Franzel said. “Based on the way many public pension systems are governed, it is often more difficult to do this because of the way pensions are calculated and administered.”

Cutler noted that the House budget proposal includes $137 million for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, which is a $20 million increase from last year. and will help fund “upgrading” and training programs.

According to him, one of the potential benefits of the pandemic is that it has empowered workers again.

“I think the kind of pendulum has swung back in favor of the worker and I think the workers, in many cases, carry more weight now than perhaps they had in the past. I think that’s a good thing,” Cutler said. “We are in an era of worker empowerment. So I think employers recognize that and good employers make changes based on that. »

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