by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
Turnover among Wisconsin state employees has soared to a record high in the last two years, leaving agencies with gaping vacancy rates that they struggle to fill.
The result has led the state to fill positions with less-experienced people, the Wisconsin Policy Forum found in a report published Tuesday. It also has led to higher overtime — which could drive more employees to leave state jobs in the face of growing burnout.
Agencies with some of the highest turnover and vacancy rates include those with some of the largest staff: the state prison system, the health department and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which operates three homes for veterans, some of which have come under scrutiny in the last year for inadequate care.
“These labor issues matter because they can complicate the agencies’ mission of ensuring safety for residents and staff while at the same time controlling overtime and other costs,” the Policy Forum report states.
Private employers have also found it increasingly difficult to fill jobs. “In the short term, however, state agencies may have less flexibility to rapidly adjust pay and benefits to respond to changing labor market conditions,” the report observes.
The report documents the sharpest one-year increase in a decade for non-retirement departures in 2022, and a new record for overall turnover as well. But while it primarily focuses on the last couple of years, it also documents a nearly constant increase in the rate of workers leaving state jobs since the passage of Act 10, stripping all but minimal collective bargaining rights for public employees.
“It’s so clear,” said Pat Wycoff, executive director of Wisconsin Council 32 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “From 2.8% non-retirement separations in 2010, to 3.9% in 2011 to 6.1% in 2012.”
In 2013, the rate held steady. “And then it takes off.” By 2019, again excluding retirements, 10.1% of state employees left. The rate dropped to 8.7% in 2020, held nearly even the next year, then shot up to 11.7% in 2022.
For overall turnover, with retirements included as well, the pattern is even more dramatic, shooting from 12.1% in 2021 to 16.4% in 2022.
For Paul Spink, president of AFSCME Council 32, all those numbers show a trend he and other state employees have seen first-hand since Act 10 took effect in 2011. The Policy Forum report’s findings — rising departures, more overtime that sparks still more people to head for the exit, and increasingly inexperienced staff — are “not remotely surprising to those of us who live inside this system,” Spink said Tuesday.
The recent surge, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, exacerbated a trend that had been underway for a decade, he said. The last two years simply accelerated it.
“We spent a couple of years being called essential but in many cases being treated as expendable,” said Spink. “We had little or no voice surrounding our increasingly dangerous working conditions, and people started to leave — fed up and looking for safer work.”
After Act 10 took effect, AFSCME opted not to recertify as an official collective bargaining agent for state employees because the law eliminated the union’s ability to negotiate about working conditions, safety or any other matters except for minimal wage increases.
But the union has remained as an advocacy organization and “a mutual aid society,” Spink said — collectively demanding change from the management of agencies in state government and “pushing back against bad ideas.”
Highest departures in a decade
The Wisconsin Policy Forum report draws its data from the State of Wisconsin Classified Workforce and Affirmative Action Report, published every two years. That document reports turnover, vacancies, pay and demographic information for the state’s permanent, classified workforce, about 28,000 people. (It leaves out judicial and legislative employees, the UW System, three independent state authorities and limited-term and project workers hired by the state.)
According to the Policy Forum report, in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022, 10.2% of the state workforce chose to leave even though they were not retiring. That was nearly two out of three of the 16.4% of state workers who exited. An additional 5,770 full-time positions — 17.7% of the state’s authorized workforce — were unfilled that year.
Departures and vacancies “reached their highest levels in a decade in a number of key state agencies,” the report states. Vacancies rose from 2020 to 2022 in 15 of the state’s 20 largest departments, including seven out of the eight departments that have more than 1,000 full-time staff positions.
In the 2022 fiscal year, 570 full-time positions at the Department of Veterans Affairs were vacant, 46.1% of the staff, the Policy Forum report states. The Department of Corrections had nearly 2,400 vacancies, 23.4% of its staff. That was nearly twice as many as two years earlier.
Along with the high turnover, the state’s workforce has become younger and less experienced, the Policy Forum report states. Since 2014, “19 of the 20 largest departments have seen a decrease in their workers’ average tenure.”
The single job with the highest rate of departures was personal care aide; more than 35% of those workers left their jobs in 2022. The personnel database doesn’t explain the increased turnover and vacancies, but the Policy Forum draws some inferences.
Pay is one likely reason. The report finds that from 2014 onward, inflation outpaced wage increases in all but two categories: protective services and service and maintenance jobs. Even sharply higher wage increases in the last two years — up to 11.9% — haven’t kept up with inflation that topped 14.9% in that period, the report states.
For employees such as prison guards, high vacancies combined with round-the-clock work demands drove overtime, burnout and more departures.
“There are prison guards who are doing enough overtime to be making six figures,” Spink said. The money doesn’t make up for the stress of the job, however.
“It’s not safe,” he said. “There’s no work-life balance. They can’t function as members of a family or community, and we’re not getting more people to take jobs under those conditions. There are options for less dangerous, more lucrative work.”
Spink, who investigates safety and the quality of care at child care centers as a Department of Children and Families employee, recently marked 20 years of working for the state.
“For at least half of them, I told everybody I knew, ‘You need to come work for the state. We’re treated better, we do better. We get to have a voice in our workplace.’ And it’s just not true anymore,” he said.
“If there’s no significant change in the approach to how we handle state employment now, this is not a temporary problem.”
This story was written by Erik Gunn, Deputy Editor at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.
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