The States Cutting Their Government Workforce

A few areas of state government appear to be shrinking nationwide.

A highway patrolman next to a car on fire in Alaska.
A highway patrolman next to a car on fire in Alaska.
(Shutterstock)
On the whole, the size of America's state government workforce has remained flat the last four years. But a closer look at new data shows some states -- and some professional fields -- experienced significant cutbacks.

Nationwide, state governments employed just over 2.4 million workers as of March 2016, according to data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau. That figure, which excludes education, started to drop with the onset of the Great Recession and currently mirrors employment levels from the early 1990s.

 


 
One of the shifts occurring is a gradual shrinking of the workforce in several areas of state government. Last year, social insurance administration and “other government administration” incurred the two largest cuts (-2.5 percent and -2.9 percent, respectively) of any employee classification in the Census survey.

Looking back further, most areas of state government have experienced much deeper reductions since total employment peaked in 2009. Social insurance administration, which includes agencies providing unemployment assistance and job services, is down 12.5 percent over the seven-year period. Highways and corrections similarly incurred steep job losses that have yet to rebound. 

The one segment of the workforce that appears to be headed in the opposite direction is higher education. Nationally, employment for state colleges and universities has steadily increased for decades, and it rose again last year.

 
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While overall state employment has changed little over the 12-month period ending in March 2016, a few individual states registered substantial declines. Several of these states, predictably, experienced budget shortfalls.

The following states registered the largest year-over-year declines in public employment, excluding education:

Alaska: The biggest cut to the workforce -- 4.8 percent -- of any state occurred here. That’s on top of reductions from the prior year, all primarily resulting from plummeting revenues driven by a drop in oil prices. Vacancies accounted for many of the eliminated positions, and the state has consolidated several divisions. Despite these cuts, however, the state still employs a relatively large workforce given its population.

Hawaii: The Aloha State shed about 3 percent of its workforce between 2015 and 2016. Its public hospitals were among the most affected, with employment declining nearly 7 percent for the year. By contrast, both its local schools and higher education institutions reported increases.

Maryland: The state experienced a particularly notable drop in its corrections officers, thanks to a declining prison population that has allowed the state to close a few of its aging facilities and problems filling vacancies. The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services recently announced a hiring bonus for new officers. In all, total state government employment dipped 2.7 percent last year.

Montana: The state employs fewer than 13,000 public employees, down 2.7 percent from 2015. The Census data indicate nearly every area of state government experienced a slight reduction in its workforce. More recently, the state announced additional cuts after revenues failed to meet projections and lawmakers rejected proposed tax increases.

Illinois: The size of the Illinois state government workforce has fluctuated a bit in recent years but has stayed relatively flat. Last year, staffing for nearly all types of agencies experienced downsizing, with an overall reduction of 2.6 percent. One area that didn’t decline was state law enforcement personnel, which added about 1,100 jobs.

View detailed government employment data for each state.

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