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Unfilled Jobs Take Toll on Governments Across the Country

When vacancies are high, there are consequences -- and many places are feeling them.

Do you know anyone qualified to create an air quality renewal permit? There’s a job -- actually several -- waiting for them in Oregon.  

As of last year, seven of the state’s 28 permit-writing positions, officially dubbed natural resource specialists, were unfilled. Two of the openings have been vacant for more than two years. 

As a result, 43 percent of the state’s air quality permits haven’t been renewed. Permits establish the level of pollutants that companies can release into the atmosphere. Without them, Oregon risks damaging its air quality.

Vacancies are a problem from coast to coast and across government agencies. In Maryland, thousands of miles from Oregon, 5,300 of the state’s nearly 50,000 executive branch jobs were empty in October. That’s a vacancy rate of about 11 percent compared to 5.5 percent in 2010. In New Mexico, 15 to 17 percent of clerk positions for courts that handle small claims and misdemeanors are unfilled, according to Arthur Pepin, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts for the state. In California, there's a 27 percent vacancy rate for workers' compensation fraud investigators.

Some vacancies are expected, even normal, but when they get too high, there are consequences: Permits aren’t renewed, inspections are missed, backlogs grow, overtime costs swell and services are reduced.  

In Albuquerque, N.M., the general jurisdiction court clerk's office has only been open to the public for half days since December 2016. 

“People who deal with the courts are unhappy. Since we prioritize criminal cases, civil cases take longer than they should, and that’s very frustrating to our business community,” says Pepin, noting that the backlog of civil cases has grown by 44 percent from 2008 to 2017. 

In Nevada, the Department of Corrections (DOC) has had to move some inmates out of two new prisons because it doesn’t have the manpower to run them at full capacity. 

“We invested a lot in building the facilities, and we can’t staff them,” says John Borrowman, deputy director of support services for the state’s DOC.

Nevada’s problem has become costly. The state has already spent $19 million in overtime costs for corrections this fiscal year -- up from about $15 million in 2017 and about $10 million in 2016, according to Borrowman.

The issue of vacancies is a problem that feeds itself -- in more ways than one.

“Who wants to join an organization that is chronically understaffed?” asks Kip Memmott, audit director for Oregon. “You’ll immediately be overwhelmed by your workload.” 

David Juppe, senior budget manager for the Maryland Department of Legislative Services and author of a report on the state's executive staffing, agrees.

“Inadequate staffing leads to overtime, frustration and burnout, which leads to more turnover and more vacancies and more burnout.”

Making matters worse: States tend to give agencies with high turnover less money for personnel, says John Hicks, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers.

In Maryland, for example, if a department has a $50 million personnel budget and expected turnover of 8 percent, it would only receive $46 million. The appropriation for approved budgeted positions is reduced by a turnover factor, based on an agency’s turnover history. Budgeters assume that a department won’t need the full appropriation because some of the positions will be vacant.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Juppe. “As your turnover gets higher, you can’t fill positions because you don’t have the budget.”  

That leads to another paradox: When there aren’t enough people to even document a problem, how can it be fixed?

Last year, the Maryland Legislature asked the corrections department for an employment analysis so it could begin to address understaffing issues. The report was due in October, but the department said it didn’t have any staff available to devote to it.

And in Berkeley, Calif., where City Auditor Ann-Marie Hogan says vacancies are “absolutely typical,” the hiring difficulties are exacerbated by turnover in the Department of Human Resources -- it’s had five directors in a little over five years. 

This appears in the Management & Workforce newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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