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Where Are the Workers? Last Month, 27% of Hawaii Civil Service Positions Were Vacant

Traditionally, Hawaii residents have eagerly applied for safe government jobs but particularly difficult-to-fill jobs now have vacancy rates of 40 percent.

Members of the Hawaii Senate Ways and Means Committee question state Budget Director Luis Salaveria during a budget hearing
Members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee question state Budget Director Luis Salaveria during a budget hearing. Given the large number of vacant state jobs, WAM Chair Donovan Dela Cruz suggested the state may need to rethink the way it pays state employees. (Civil Beat Screenshot/2024)
More than 1 in 4 civil service positions in Hawaii government was vacant last month, a statistic that is spurring complaints from the public about eroding levels of service.

A new report by the Department of Human Resources Development traces the increase in vacant positions within state agencies over the past four years, showing the vacancy rate has climbed from 18 percent in 2019 shortly before the Covid-19 pandemic to 27 percent last month.

The report also shows another 30 percent of existing state civil service employees will be eligible to retire within five years. That suggests the staff shortages in state departments ranging from the state Department of Defense to the Department of Human Services could get even worse.

Concern about vacant state jobs is building at the Legislature, and surfaced repeatedly at a series of Senate Ways and Means Committee budget hearings last week. On Tuesday, both the Tax Department and Department of Budget and Finance described problems in recruiting and hiring staff.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who has much influence over state spending as chairman of that committee, suggested higher salaries may be needed to help with recruitment. He warned state Budget Director Luis Salaveria on Tuesday that “You just have to make sure you get ahead of the train wreck.”

Salaveria replied: “Absolutely. One hundred percent.”

He also said there is “definitely a re-look at the state’s workforce and the criteria, and we are due for some kind of paradigm shift in terms of the way that we compensate government employees.”

Part of that would include a review of the minimum requirements for some state jobs and hurdles that job applicants would have to clear to get on a list to even be considered for a government job, Salaveria said.

The Department of Budget and Finance has been unable to hire upper-level program budget analysts, he said, and staff at the human resources department “hear me complain a lot” about problems with recruitment and hiring.

Hawaii’s private sector employers have been reporting problems filling hotel and other jobs for years now, and last month’s DHRD report demonstrates the same pattern is gradually hollowing out the public sector.

Overall, Hawaii economists report the state has 15,000 fewer people in the workforce than it had before the pandemic began in March 2020, a shift attributed to everything from a lack of child care to workers who are ill with long Covid to outmigration of working-age Hawaii residents to the mainland.

Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, said government specialties such as child welfare case workers, speech-language pathologists and school psychologists have vacancy rates that are considerably higher than the average rates for their departments.

“We have not only a very big problem here in Hawaii government with vacancy rates that are just a shade under 30 percent, in some occupations it exceeds 40 percent,” Perreira said in an interview.

That means services aren’t being provided in some critical occupations such as child welfare services, and “sadly, that means people are getting hurt,” he said. HGEA is Hawaii’s largest union with nearly 37,000 members statewide.

The state needs to look at multiple fixes, Perreira said. The low hanging fruit is to increase public workers’ pay “because we just don’t pay,” he said, but government benefits such as health coverage and retirement also need to be reviewed.

“There’s got to be a realization that the state and the counties are no longer competitive with their benefit package,” he said.

Hawaii Government Employees Association Executive Director Randy Perreira
Hawaii Government Employees Association Executive Director Randy Perreira said the high vacancy rate for state government jobs shows the state has “a very big problem” that requires a fresh look at public workers pay and benefits. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)
“It’s a myth now to say that government workers get way better benefits than everybody else because, to their credit, the private sector has caught up and in some cases has passed government as an employer of choice,” Perreira said.

And it will always be hard to find workers for some positions because some government jobs can be brutally difficult no matter what the pay or benefits might be.

“At Hawaii State Hospital, where there’s an unfortunate chance that you can get assaulted at work. Hey, man, it’s always going to be hard to get guys to work there,” he said. “In child welfare, working conditions are difficult, and are even made harder because they’re so understaffed.”

Another example: About one-third of the 1,535 authorized positions for state adult correctional officers are vacant, and some ACOs report they are regularly required to work 16- or even 24-hour shifts to cover essential posts. Last year the correctional system paid out nearly $21 million in overtime.

To make matters worse, Perreira cited DHRD projections that nearly a third of state workers on the job today will be eligible to retire in the next five years.

Hawaii’s political leaders are dealing with years of neglect in the area of human resources, he said. And the problem may be increasingly difficult to address post-pandemic if the state population declines.

Dela Cruz pointed out that state lawmakers have already granted pay differentials to help recruit and retain staff in the Attorney General’s Office and in the state Historic Preservation Division as well as certain teachers and information technology workers.

“I think that you guys need to project at what point is there a real crisis. Because we have to be ahead of the crisis,” Dela Cruz said told Salaveria. “We’re just continuing to go down this trend, and at some point it’s going to be extremely detrimental, and I think that some of us feel that it already is.”

Sen. Sharon Moriwaki observed that the state tax department listed more than 120 vacancies in its budget submittal, including investigators, tax collectors and a dozen upper-level auditors. She asked what is being done about it.

Gary Suganuma, director of the tax department, replied his department formed a recruitment and training committee to brainstorm ideas for filling positions.

The department today has about the same number of vacancies as it had last year at this time, and has mostly been replacing people who leave.

“People have left, retired, we’ve been able to keep up with that, but not much more,” he said.

“We’re continuing to do our work, even with our vacancies,” and the department improved on its audits and collections last year, Suganuma said. “We’re doing the best we can, but I agree with you, if we could fill more vacancies, we could do better.”

Suganuma explained that tax officials will explore the possibility of creating a new, better paid classification for auditors in the tax department who have the unique skills and knowledge the department needs, but “my understanding is it could take a year or two years to create.”

Dela Cruz interrupted Suganuma there, saying lawmakers will take the lead by creating the new slots themselves. “If (Department of Human Resources Development) is going to take too long, then we might as well do it legislatively,” he said.

DHRD Director Brenna Hashimoto did not respond to a request for an interview last week.

Perreira said HGEA members are hugely frustrated because they are struggling to do the work of two, three or even four positions because those other positions are vacant.

“Then, of course, they get the double whammy because people complain — the public complains” about delays or a lack of service, Perreira said. “Our members feel it because the public grumbles to them.”

Years ago parents told their children to seek out government jobs because they are solid employment, and “one day you’ll get great benefits,” Perreira said. Government seems to have fallen into the trap of believing that attitude continues today, he said.

“The promise of government employment is gone,” he said. “Back then, we had plenty of applicants, we had guys waiting, trying to get into government, trying so they could get that benefit, that retirement. Now, the only guys you can recruit without any question are firefighters.”

This article was first published by Civil Beat. Read the original article.
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