Using this past June as a benchmark, the state lost 9,156 classified and unclassified employees over the past year, according to data provided by the Louisiana Department of Civil Service. Today, that leaves the state with 92,944 workers. During the 2004-2005 fiscal year, the state gained 594 employees, so the difference is noteworthy.
Jean Jones, deputy director of civil service, admits the decline in actual employees is staggering, although it has been offset somewhat by the hiring 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."
While the precipitous drop in state workers is shocking to some, Jones says there's no reason to panic. The department implemented a workforce training program several years ago to deal with dips in staffing, and the needs that used to be filled by those 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, agrees it may be too early to tell if the trend poses any kind of threat to the delivery of vital services. He says the state's human resources administrators should be cautious. "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 two economic sectors currently suffer from inadequate recruitment --the medical field (particularly nursing) and skilled trades such as welders and pipe fitters. "We have got to become more aggressive in hiring skilled trades," Jones says. "There's just so much work for them right now in the areas that are rebuilding." Each state department has some flexibility is setting pay rates to be more competitive, and many are exploring those options, she adds.
There's also the fear of losing institutional knowledge, or experienced workers. Some states currently face situations in which the bulk of their departing workers are also the most seasoned, which leaves a substantial learning curve for new hires. 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, filling vacant state positions can be expensive, and Louisiana has its share of turnovers these days. One study by the American Management Association pegs the cost at 30 percent of each vacant 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 policemen -- positions that Jones says are regularly vacant.
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. In that instance, most were young workers with less than five years experience. The following year, lawmakers proposed not filling the spots as a way to downsize government, but nearly all of the positions were replaced with new hires. The empty positions being advertised today could be another opportunity for state government to cut back, but Jones says there is no effort under way to eliminate jobs, other than an ongoing early retirement program.
Conservatives argue that a large number of government jobs could never be shed 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 denies that it's difficult to get poor performers off the public dole. Her department 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," 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 adds. Of that total, only 26 terminations were reversed by the Civil Service Commission, a seven-member body that hears appeals. In comparison, major corporations that have had roughly 93,000 employees at one time or another -- the same size as the state's work force -- such as Bank of America, DuPont, Johnson & Johnson and Wachovia, have been known to lay off more workers in a single year and still swing record profits and serve their base.
Regardless of how the state's vacancies are treated in coming months, Jones argues there's no reason to be concerned about the unfilled positions. Workforce training programs are in place to address future drops in employment, and many vacancies have occurred in areas where a public need no longer exists, such as parts of Orleans and St. Bernard parishes. State officials consider everything to be under control for now. "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."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.