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Can Unions Help Ward Off a Public-Sector Workforce Crisis?

Half of public-sector workers are considering leaving their jobs. Unions have stepped up their role in retention and recruitment, but the ongoing lack of normalcy remains a serious challenge.

Unable to work remotely, Register of Deeds staff in Dane County, Wis., come into the office daily to ensure services regarding legal records continue without interruption.
(Local 720)
The great resignation and its rethinking of work, driven by burnout, desire for better pay and dissatisfaction with working conditions and culture, has been accompanied by renewed interest in unions. A September Gallup poll found that more Americans approve of unions than at any time since 1965.

Union membership has been falling steadily since 1985 in the U.S., but in the past year workers at some of the country’s largest corporations have made headlines with their decisions to organize. In early December, workers at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, N.Y., voted to unionize; since then, workers at more than 50 stores in 19 states have filed for elections.

The president has repeatedly expressed the view that unions built the country’s middle class. This week, a White House task force issued a report recommending actions the federal government can take to support worker organizing and collective bargaining.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2021 just over 10 percent of all wage and salary members were union members. This is a slight decline from the previous year, but the disruptive effects of COVID-19 on the workforce make it hard to know what this particular year-to-year comparison really means.

Half of the country’s 14 million unionized workers are from the private sector and half from the public sector, even though the public sector employs only about 15 percent of the workforce. More than 4 in 10 local government workers, and more than 3 in 10 in state government, have union affiliations.

The pandemic has presented exceptional risks and challenges to many of the public servants most likely to be represented by unions, such as teachers, firefighters, and police officers. They are relying on their representatives more than ever to help them manage the conditions of their work lives.
In 2021, 30 states had union membership rates below the national average (10.3 percent), and 10 had rates below half that average. North and South Carolina had the lowest rates.

Government Workers on the Brink

Over the course of four surveys since the spring of 2020, the MissionSquare Research Institute has seen a continuous increase in the number of public-sector workers who are considering leaving their jobs.

“We’re teetering on the brink of a public-sector workforce crisis,” said Rivka Liss-Levinson, senior research manager for MissionSquare, in releasing the findings of its most recent survey, conducted at the end of 2021.

Earlier surveys had asked workers if the pandemic had made them consider changing jobs or retiring. The most recent version also asked whether the pandemic had made them think about leaving the workforce entirely.

Collated responses revealed that more than half (52 percent) were inclined to leave their jobs, according to Liss-Levinson. “If you’re not considering leaving your job, the person sitting next to you is,” she says.

A desire for better compensation is a motivating factor for those considering a change, but so is burnout from the unprecedented demands of working during the pandemic. Employees also wanted recognition of the risks they’ve been taking during the pandemic and appreciation for their service even more than improved benefits, flex scheduling or remote work opportunities, according to Liss-Levinson. Addressing the personal consequences of stress and safety concerns is “a low-cost solution for employers, something they specifically can be doing,” she says.

Public-sector unions are also finding ways to address the unique needs and gaps that COVID-19 has precipitated.

Funding for Frontline Workers

In early 2020, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) responded to public-sector layoffs and furloughs by launching a Fund the Front Lines campaign to push for resources to keep frontline workers safe and on the job. Union members called and wrote to members of Congress and worked with state and local officials, business groups, nonprofits and other partners to advocate for federal funding.

“When the pandemic hit, we knew we couldn’t have a repeat of 2008,” says AFSCME president Lee Saunders. “Instead of austerity, we demanded investment in quality public services.”

The push continued through a change of administrations. In March 2021, the American Rescue Plan was signed into law, providing a total of $700 billion in aid for public services. This included a $350 billion Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF) with guidelines that provide flexibility in how funds are used to address the COVID-19 public health emergency and its impact on local economies.

Federal dollars helped prevent mass layoffs, support recruitment and bring raises to some workers. AFSCME’s research department worked to help jurisdictions understand all the ways they could use rescue funds.

“At the state and local level, we’ve been able to improve public services, secure proper PPE, and make working conditions safer,” says Saunders.

This work has included attention to workers whose service isn’t necessarily front of mind for most members of the public. For example, Local 1053 in Milwaukee ensured that public school secretaries, who continued to come to their schools to distribute technology and textbooks to parents, and deliver materials and meals to the homes of students, received the same hazard pay as other frontline workers.

Setting a Stage for Stability

In nearby Dane County, another AFSCME affiliate used an innovative approach to ensure fair distribution of a wage increase proposed by the county executive.

Derek Wallace, leader of Local 720, is an economic support specialist for Dane County, Wis. He works in a division with a hundred or so others who determine eligibility for programs such as nutrition assistance, Medicaid and child-care assistance and help citizens navigate the application process. All told, Local 720 encompasses about 800 workers, from park rangers to the county health department.

“We’re really spread out across every aspect of county government,” says Wallace.

Six local unions, including 720, were to receive an equitable wage increase, originally announced as 6 percent across the board. This meant that those already receiving the most pay would see the biggest raises. Employees such as laborers, food service workers and custodians, likely facing greater risk and economic hardship, would benefit the least.

Instead, the union proposed that all workers receive the same raise, based on 6 percent of the average wage for a county employee. For those at the low end of the scale, this meant the difference between a $1 per hour increase and a $2 per hour increase.

“We thought it was important to do that because they are the ones putting their health and safety on the line for those of us who are more likely to be able to work at home,” says Wallace.

Local politicians in the county, home to the state’s capital in Madison, tend to be labor champions, he says. “It’s fortunate that we have a fairly progressive community that is willing to invest in their workers and public services.” As a result, unions have been able to achieve such milestones as no-premium health insurance and wages that are generally above average.

This has enabled public-sector workers in Dane County to weather recent years with less uncertainty about holding on to their positions than reflected in MissionSquare’s national surveys, Wallace says. “The pandemic certainly caused a lot of anxiety, but I think a lot of people realized that because of the work we had done we had set the stage for ensuring that we had quality wages and quality benefits.”
COVID-19 outbreaks and worker shortages have created tough conditions for correctional officers in Ohio.
(Eric Heisig,

Risk and Retention

Chris Mabe, a correctional counselor at Lorain Correctional Institution in Grafton, Ohio, has served the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction for 30 years. He is the president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (OCSEA), which represents all of its state workers.

In 2020 the state workforce shrank by about 12 percent, more than all but a handful of states. The governor ordered a hiring freeze, adding to the pressure at a time when many in state institutions were out sick.

The Ohio corrections department had the largest COVID-19 infection rate of any in the nation, Mabe says, and many staff members became ill or died. “They had to call in the National Guard to fill in the gaps, but that was still far from enough.”

The OCSEA entered into difficult negotiations for a new contract, but because it looked like Washington might come through with new funds, it took its time. When the American Rescue Plan passed, it was able to achieve a 9 percent pay increase over three years, the largest it had been able to bargain in 15 years.

Work at correctional facilities can be grueling, with officers working 16 hours a day for as many as six days a week. A number of prisons are located in areas where Amazon and other companies are building new facilities, making the daily drive to work a reminder of alternate career possibilities.

“We lost about 1,700 correctional officers in just 2021, an all-time record,” says Mabe. “That can be dangerous.”

The union has worked to address the fears, anger and uncertainty members have experienced during the pandemic, calling each of them to offer hope and the reminder that it was pushing forward on their behalf. “We would have lost a lot more people through the great resignation had our staff and leadership not had those conversations,” says Mabe. OCSEA has also provided PPE when the state was unable to do so and filled shortages of headsets and computers for members who need them for telework.

Hiring and retention are ongoing challenges. OCSEA is working to raise awareness of the ways stimulus money could be used to fund raises and bonuses.
A teacher working with a young student at a whiteboard.
Daisy Chandler works with an Alabama student. She is among the retired teachers who have returned to classrooms to fill gaps.
(Trisha Crain/TNS)

Unsustainable Workloads

Approximately 19 million people work in state and local government. If half aren’t sure they want to keep their jobs, what does that say about the stability and dependability of public services on which any attempted return to “normal” depends?

It’s not clear how quickly this dynamic might shift at a time when school board members, teachers and public health officials are asking the Justice Department to help protect them from violence and harassment.

Liss-Levinson points to other signs of systemic stress, such as National Guard members driving school buses, firefighters working on off days and retired teachers being called back into classrooms. Eight in 10 of those responding to MissionSquare’s latest survey said that departures by coworkers have put a strain on their workloads.

“Clearly, this isn’t sustainable, and public services and safety are increasingly at risk,” she says.

As government employers consider how hiring and retention might need to change to meet this risk, unions offer a parallel support system for workers who are members, one with added value when all of government is operating under duress.

“We are trying to keep people from walking off their jobs, keeping people’s belief in public-sector work,” says Mabe. “I think we’ve been successful in that during the hardest times I’ve seen in my life.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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