Help Wanted?

by Jeremy Alford

Post-Katrina and Rita, an increasing number of state jobs are being left vacant.

From 2004-2005, the state gained 594 employees, employing more than 100,000 workers. Today, there are roughly 1,000 different jobs being advertised by the state of Louisiana on its employment Web site, no surprise considering the thousands of positions left vacant since Katrina and Rita. Using this past June as a benchmark, Louisiana employs 92,944 workers and lost 9,156 classified and unclassified employees over the past year, according to data provided by the Louisiana Department of Civil Service.

Jean Jones, deputy director of civil service, admits it's a staggering amount, which has only been slightly offset by the addition of contract employees. "But it's only a small part of a larger impact the state has felt over the past year," she says. "We certainly saw a reduction as a result of Katrina and Rita, but people left and were laid off because of closures. Just at [New Orleans'] Charity Hospital alone we lost thousands of workers."

Jones says that's no reason to shift into panic mode. The department implemented a workforce training program several years ago to deal with dips in staffing, and the public needs attached to the vacant jobs are being assessed daily. "Even though we couldn't predict this would happen, we were ready to deal with it," Jones says.

James C. Garand, a professor of political science at Louisiana State University who researches state government operations, says the state's human resources administrators should be siding with caution. "This could become a bigger problem than ever before, depending on the circumstances," he says. "State governments should always be concerned about turnover. It needs to be investigated in a major way, especially now since state government is competing for jobs in a more serious way against the private sector."

Jones says there are two main areas of state recruitment presently lacking: nursing and the medical field, which have traditionally been problem spots, and, more recently, skilled trade, such as wielders and pipe-fitters. "We have got to become more aggressive in hiring skilled trade," Jones says. "There's just so much work for them right now in the areas that are rebuilding." Each state department has some flexibility in setting pay rates to be more competitive and many are exploring those options.

There's also the fear of losing experienced workers and institutional knowledge. Some states are facing situations where the bulk of their retiring workforce is also the most seasoned, which leaves a substantial learning curve. Louisiana won't face that for several years, Jones says, at least until baby boomers begin their mass exodus. For now, the state has instituted a mentoring program to prepare for that day.

Still, re-filling positions on the state level can be expensive, and Louisiana has no shortage of turnover these days. One study by the American Management Association pegs the cost at 30 percent of that particular position's annual salary. Another survey by LSU placed it at $25,000 per public vacancy for protective services including corrections officers, wildlife agents and policeman ' all positions that Jones says are regularly empty.

This isn't the first time state government has been swamped by massive workforce losses. In 1999, Louisiana lost more than 13,600 workers in one fiscal year. Most were young workers, with less than five years each under their belts. The following year lawmakers proposed leaving the spots unfilled as a way to downsize government, but nearly all of the positions were replaced with new hires. Jones says there is no effort under way to weed out any jobs, other than the usual early retirement program.

Some critics argue a large number of government jobs would never be eliminated if not for unforeseen events, such as Katrina and Rita. Joseph Coletti, a fiscal policy analyst at the John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina-based nonprofit, has studied state employee issues and concludes that the public sector appeals to people who prefer stable pay and benefits over substantive work. That's because underperforming employees often slide by and are able to retain their jobs despite expectations. "The difference is the state rewards poor performers and the private sector rewards its top performers," he says.

Jones admits that the longest-running tall tale associated with state government is that it's nearly impossible to fire poor performers on the taxpayer dole. Her department even teaches a class on the topic to upper management and publishes a packet of related information. "I think it is a myth, but it is a popular myth, too," she says. "But there's a constant push to do the same work with fewer people, and you can get fired."

Over the past three years, 5,651 people have been "involuntarily separated" from their jobs with the state, Jones says, of which only 26 were reversed by the Civil Service Commission, a seven-member body that hears appeals. In comparison, major corporations that have overseen roughly 93,000 employees at one time or another like Louisiana ' Bank of America, DuPont, Johnson & Johnson, Wachovia ' have been known to lay off more workers in a single year and still report record profits.

Regardless of how the state's vacancies are treated in coming months, Jones argues there's no reason yet to be concerned about the trend, especially since jobs have largely been left vacant in areas where public needs no longer exist, like in parts of Orleans and St. Bernard parishes. As such, state officials consider everything under control. "Not all of those job vacancies need to be replaced yet," Jones says. "It is somewhat of a concern, but it's too early to tell. It's an event that isn't going to happen every year. I think that's why we aren't in a crisis."