With an immediate staffing crisis seemingly averted, state employee unions pivoted Tuesday to draw attention to longstanding vacancies, which they said had worsened working conditions and forced overtime shifts at agencies throughout state government.
The State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition called last week for Gov. Ned Lamont to delay for another 20 days the implementation of a requirement that state workers be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus or, in many cases, comply with weekly testing. Lamont declined. But ahead of the Monday night deadline, the governor was confident enough workers had cooperated that National Guard support would be unnecessary.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the administration reported that 96% of executive branch workers were in compliance. About 78% of the workforce had opted to be vaccinated while 18% had agreed to the weekly testing requirements. Meanwhile, 4%, about 1,200 employees, were still out of compliance with the order.
During a virtual conference with reporters, union leaders said they would still prefer to see the requirement extended, but their attention had largely shifted to staffing shortfalls which they said have persisted since at least last January. They called on the governor to fill vacant positions which have led to forced overtime at agencies providing health care services, counseling or managing prison populations.
“In the Department of Developmental Services we have a staffing crisis that is so acute that we have pregnant members being forced to work triple shifts — 24 hours straight,” Rob Baril, president of District 1199 New England, SEIU, said.
Meanwhile, Baril said about 530 positions were vacant at the Department of Mental and Addiction Services.
“Because there hasn’t been enough staff hired in addiction services, about 80% of the time on third shift if somebody is having a crisis, a psychotic break, a suicidal episode, there is nobody to answer the phone in certain places. We are literally talking about short staffing that is making the difference between life and death,” Baril said.
Max Reiss, the governor’s chief spokesman, disputed the union’s claims, saying the Lamont administration had hired 537 staff in the Department of Mental and Addiction Services, more than any administration since 2012.
“The administration has taken aggressive steps to expedite hiring at agencies, especially those who work directly with patients,” Reiss said in a Tuesday email. “Additionally, fingerprinting and background checks have been accelerated for these roles, as we work to get people on the job sooner.”
SEBAC leaders said staffing shortfalls extended beyond agencies that focused primarily on patients. Sherine Bailey, an officer at Carl Robinson Correctional Institution in Enfield, said the Department of Correction was short around 400 frontline workers and another 400 were expected to retire next year.
“What we do not understand is why Connecticut prisons are dangerously understaffed,” Bailey said. COVID outbreaks exacerbate the problem, she said. “Many of us are working 16 hour days, multiple times a week with no support and no relief in sight. This is not sustainable.”
According to a September report by the Pew Charitable Trusts, non-education public sector jobs shrank by 7.6% in Connecticut during the two-year period from July 2019 to July 2021. It was one of the sharpest declines reported by any state, matched by New Hampshire and exceeded by New Mexico, where public sector jobs dropped by 8.5%.
Retirements from Connecticut state government are expected to continue at an expedited rate through next summer, when a previously-negotiated change in benefits kicks in and incentivizes employee retirement. As thousands of workers leave state service, Lamont has looked for opportunities to consolidate some services in an effort to save money.