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Worker Shortage Hits Louisiana Government as Applicants Plummet

Applications for state jobs have fallen 52 percent over the past two years and reflect a similar problem in the private sector. The state Civil Service Commission has sought permission to boost starting pay to blunt the trend.

Aerial view of Louisiana's state capitol in Baton Rouge.
(Felix Mizioznikov/Shutterstock)
The worker shortage that has disrupted private industry has spilled over to state government, where job applications are down 52% in the past two years.

"The pandemic kind of changed people's view of work," said Byron P. Decoteau Jr., director of Louisiana State Civil Service.

"They just can't recruit and attract," Decoteau said of state agencies.

The state got 45,332 applications for jobs in January of 2020, two months before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. In January 2022 that number tumbled to just 21,649 job seekers.

In addition, agency leaders are routinely asking the state Civil Service Commission for permission to boost starting pay, or increase existing pay by $1 or $2 per hour, to attract and retain workers.

"Agencies are struggling," Decoteau said.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne agreed.

"That is absolutely a concern," Dardenne said of the 52% drop in job seekers. "It also manifests itself with the inability to find qualified people to fill the positions."

The trends are part of what has been dubbed the "great resignation," the seismic shift in the workplace sparked by the pandemic.

It also dovetails with what private industry leaders have been saying for months — problems finding employees to fill jobs that were easily filled before the pandemic.

Leaders of nearly half of small businesses in Louisiana say they cannot fill jobs, and 24% of roughly 3,800 firms say the problem is significant.

"And when they do get workers they are not really qualified, they do not have the skills that one would hope they have coming into the workforce," said Dawn Starns McVea, senior state director for Louisiana and five other states in the National Federation of Independent Business.

The capital region has about 30,000 job openings and around 13,000 people looking for work, said Andrew Fitzgerald, senior vice-president of business intelligence for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

Fitzgerald called the gap huge compared to normal times, when the number of job openings and job seekers are about the same.

Jim Patterson, vice-president of government relations for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, said the worker shortage remains an issue for many of the 2,000 firms that belong to LABI.

Patterson said the predicament often means those on the payroll are overworked, fatigued from the pandemic and grappling with the nation's worst inflation in 40 years.

"A lot of these challenges are giving fits to employers," Patterson said.

The plunge in the ranks of those seeking state and other jobs has triggered a wide range of theories.

Some workers near retirement when the pandemic began opted to leave the workforce.

Others used the once-in-a-century virus to rethink the balance between their work and personal time.

Multiple stimulus checks from the federal government and tax credits are also cited.

Still others quickly got used to working fulltime or part-time from home because of childcare and other reasons, which is also reshaping state government routines.

The state has 66,352 employees, including 37,623 who are classified, which means they enjoy job protection through civil service.

The rest are at-will workers, and can be disciplined or fired easier than their classified counterparts.

Average pay is $50,555 for classified employees and $69,652 for unclassified, according to the latest state civil service report.

How many are working remotely two years after the start of the pandemic is unclear.

Before the pandemic the number was negligible.

During the early stages of the outbreak workers considered "non-essential" were told to work from home, then gradually returned to state offices on staggered work schedules.

Today's snapshot varies from agency to agency.

Employees at the 500-plus state Department of Education are allowed to work remotely — called telework — three days per week.

The Louisiana Board of Regents permits it two days per week.

Decoteau said he allows his employees to work outside the office one day per week.

State agencies are in the process of submitting telework policies to civil service officials.

They are supposed to be approved by June 30.

However, even those plans will not provide numbers on how many workers remain outside state offices, and are subject to change by agency leaders.

Even state departments with low vacancy rates, like the state Department of Transportation and Development, say retaining workers can be a challenge.

DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson told lawmakers last week Amazon can outbid the state for some of his agency's key workers.

The retail behemoth is set open a fulfillment center this fall at the site of the former Cortana Mall.

"When all these Amazon facilities come on, where do you think all these equipment operators are going to go?" Wilson asked.

(c)2022 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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