Labor Committee meeting

As a union steward and a correction officer, Amanda Tower is witnessing the “silver tsunami” of state employee retirements with an added wave of resignations she said indicates that the workload for everyone else is becoming too much to handle.

“Retention right now is my biggest concern,” Tower said. “I’ve never seen people with time on the job just walk away.”

Tower was among dozens of state employees and union members with the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition testifying before the Labor and Public Employee Committee Tuesday in support of HB 5445 which would require state agencies to continually recruit employees to automatically fill vacancies.

The unions within SEBAC including Council 4 AFSCME Local 391 where Tower is a steward represent 43,000 state employees who are bearing the brunt of job vacancies brought on by retirements expected to continue to escalate throughout 2022, union officials said.

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose
Click above to vote and comment on HB 5445: AN ACT CONCERNING STATE STAFFING LEVELS

The issue is that state agencies are not filling vacant positions fast enough which in turn is impacting the ability of remaining employees to provide the services that communities need, Tower and others said.

“By allowing state worker levels to dwindle in the name of budget savings, you will be hobbling our ability to provide essential services to the most frail and needy of Connecticut residents,” Michael Stebe, a social services analyst with the newly formed state Department of Administrative Services Bureau of Information Technology Services, said.

It’s Stebe’s job to provide IT support and quality control to the state Department of Social Services and other agencies that oversee the safety and wellbeing of residents throughout the state. But Stebe said since May 2021, his unit has lost half of its staff. As of Tuesday, none of the positions have been filled, Stebe said. “We are now down to nine analysts as state employees doing the work of what should be 25,” he said.

It’s an issue that’s occurring statewide, Drew Stoner, spokesperson for SEBAC, said. “Across state agencies public employees are struggling to keep up with the crisis of unmet need for critical public services because of the drastic staffing shortages,” Stoner said. 

The shortages have impacted nearly every agency, including the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services which provides in-patient psychiatric treatment to the elderly and others with acute mental health and medical needs, said Stephan Bobb, a mental health assistant at Connecticut Valley Hospital.

“Our hospital has over 150 open positions, and we have only hired 58 people in the last year,” Bobb said. “We have nurses leaving before they hit the units. This is shrinking public sector service and it has terrible consequences for our patients – most of whom are Black and brown.”

People are leaving the state Department of Correction at an alarming rate whether they are new hires, employees with years in on the job but not enough time to retire and those who are eligible to retire in 2022, Tower said.

Correction officers are working 16-hour shifts several times a week, she said. “People are completely burnt out,” Tower said. The amount of mandated shifts has led to retirements, resignations to other jobs and people calling out sick even as there aren’t enough replacements, she said.

Union officials said in September that the DOC was down 400 front line staff including correction officers, lieutenants, captains, nurses and others who work directly with inmates. As of Tuesday, that number was up to 650 with more retirements expected by April 1.

“It’s getting to the point where if something big happens will we have enough people to respond?” Tower said.

The number of state workers has plunged this year as many eligible employees choose to retire rather than accept the leaner cost-of-living adjustment terms that will apply to any state worker who retires after July 1. 

According to the state comptroller’s office, 952 state workers have already retired this year as of earlier this week and another 2,307 have filed paperwork indicating their intent to retire soon. 

The other issue is in the way positions left vacant through retirement are filled, she said. If someone leaves, that position won’t be filled for at least 30 days, Tower said. “There’s no ability to train your replacement, because your replacement won’t be hired until after you’re gone for 30 days,” she said.

That’s creating situations where people are retiring from the training academy for correction officers but not being replaced even as classes to train more recruits are in progress, she said. “So we are having a staffing shortage even as we are working to train recruits,” Tower said.

“We’re a continuous operation,” Tower said. “We are constantly working to plug the holes in staffing, but we are getting to the point where there is no more staff to mandate.”