Connecticut governors and legislatures have been using job freezes to help close state budget deficits for more than a decade.
And even after state tax receipts began pouring in, Gov. Ned Lamont has frozen vacancies faster than did his predecessor — much to the consternation of lawmakers.
Now, with one-sixth of most Executive Branch jobs empty, retirements accelerating and the coronavirus pandemic still not over, unions and some legislators say a more concerted effort to hire must begin immediately.
“It is unsustainable for us to continue working 16-hour shifts in a job that is already known for being dangerous and with high rates of physical injuries and mental health stressors,” said Sean Howard, President of Local 387 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 800 correction officers and other front-line employees at the Cheshire Correctional Complex.
According to data obtained by the CT Mirror from the state Office of Policy and Management, all Executive Branch agencies — excluding public colleges and universities — have collectively filled 25,700 of the 30,080 positions authorized for them in the state budget.
The 17% vacancy rate is almost double where it stood two years ago, when 9.4% of jobs were empty.
According to Comptroller Natalie Braswell’s office, 3,848 employees — across all of state government — have either retired this calendar year or filed written intent to do so before more stringent pension benefit rules take effect on July 1. And that number is projected to keep growing over the next two months.
In a typical year, the state sees 2,000 to 2,500 retirements.
Staffing across all prisons is down more than 600, and that is also likely to grow before the fiscal year ends June 30, Howard said, adding that officers face mandatory overtime “to an exhausting and unhealthy extent. … We put our lives and health on the line during COVID. We need relief.”
Dozens of members of the state’s largest health care workers union hand-delivered a letter to Lamont last week, asking how hundreds of caregivers’ jobs could be vacant amid a pandemic when more retirements are coming — and the state is projected to wrap the fiscal year with a staggering $4 billion surplus equal to 20% of the General Fund.
The administration responded that it’s doing everything it can to help.
Lamont and the legislature approved four-year contracts with most of the state’s unionized workforce recently that include 2.5% annual cost-of-living hikes, step increases — adding another 2 or 2.5 percentage points to the pay of all but the most senior workers — and $3,500 in bonuses this spring and summer.
“Our statewide human resources team is working diligently to refill positions using innovative technology, actively reaching out to organizations and individuals to help ensure we have a representative workforce and using resources like licensing data to recruit qualified applicants for these roles,” added Lamont spokeswoman Lora Rae Anderson.
She added the administration also is trying to be strategic with its hiring.
“We are hiring more people in IT [information technology] than we have in the past but may have fewer people responsible for filing paper,” Anderson said. “We have consistently said that while we know we need to recruit to fill positions vacated by retirements, we also view this as an opportunity to make sure our government works right, and we are a good steward of taxpayer dollars.”
Has Lamont been freezing jobs to save money?
But unions aren’t the only ones that are worried.
Leaders of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee have been pressing Lamont since shortly after he took office in January 2019 to spend the money lawmakers put in the budget.
Lamont’s predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, had few options other than to shrink the Executive Branch workforce by almost 10% between 2011 and 2018.
Often faced with large projected deficits and trying to avoid tax hikes and program cuts whenever possible, lawmakers frequently ordered Malloy to find huge savings after the fiscal year had already begun and the budget was in force.
For example, lawmakers ordered Malloy to find an average of $871 million per year in savings in his first biennial budget, a massive target driven largely by a major union concessions deal.
But even between 2013 and 2016, when no new concessions agreements had been struck, General Fund savings targets averaged $184 million per year.
This governor has aggressively overshot savings targets since he took office. And Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, co-chairs of the Appropriations Committee, say lawmakers still don’t fully understand the administration’s rationale.
“We continually bring it up,” Osten told the CT Mirror on Sunday. “They keep saying they’re hiring at a rate they just can’t keep up with. We don’t believe that.”
The administration defends itself by pointing to Connecticut’s robust short-term fiscal position.
“Governor Lamont and his budget team have restored a balanced budget and a healthy rainy day fund, all while effectively supporting those who need us most,” Anderson said.
But unions counter that Lamont could have filled all vacant jobs and Connecticut still would have billions of dollars in reserve. The single-largest factor driving the budget situation involves the massive surge in state income and business tax receipts that has taken place since 2018.
Workforce has shrunk during the pandemic
Some labor advocates also question whether Lamont simply is committing to shrinking government, regardless of the pandemic or the reductions imposed in the 2010s — even though the governor publicly insists the big bonuses recently approved were designed to promote hiring.
Republican legislators already have accused Lamont of awarding the bonuses now to curry favor with state employee unions as he seeks reelection this fall. Workers can accept about 70% of the bonuses and still retire before July 1.
“This [raise and bonus] deal was billed as a retention effort,” Rep. Laura Devlin, R- Fairfield, the running mate of GOP gubernatorial contender Bob Stefanowski of Madison, said when the House approved the contracts last month. “It’s nothing more than a handout.”
But labor leaders say the vacancy rate has become a crisis that transcends election-year politics.
In mid-2018, during Malloy’s last year, the vacancy rate in the Executive Branch was 13.9%. That means hirings initially improved under Lamont, then slipped badly not long after the pandemic began.
Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199 NE, said the closure of an addiction treatment program at Connecticut Valley, the state’s psychiatric hospital, and a lack of beds at other sites for children with behavioral health needs, are just two examples of the toll that excessive vacancies in the state workforce are taking.
“We see this as an urgent question of racial and economic justice,” Baril said, “both in provision of safety net services and quality of care.”