Connecticut’s public service crisis is receiving long-overdue attention and generating much-needed discussion at all levels of state government. Recent debates over union contracts at the General Assembly have helped shine a light on one of its underlying causes – short staffing.
State employees’ collective bargaining agreements negotiated with the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont are an important part of a multi-pronged solution. The legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee has proposed two additional initiatives that would fundamentally reform the hiring process – and they should be passed and then signed into law.
One raised bill would speed up the hiring of qualified staff by replacing the current default with automatically refilling vacant positions. This would be a huge improvement over the administratively time-consuming process now required to refill a vacancy after a retirement or resignation.
At the Department of Transportation (DOT), this is especially important given the expected influx of $6 billion to Connecticut in federal infrastructure funds over the next five years. I work as a lawyer in the agency and am witnessing firsthand the challenge to meet this moment.
My colleagues at the Department of Revenue Services (DRS) face similar headwinds. The agency has 31% fewer employees in 2022 (563) than it did in 2015 (801) and is expected to lose 13% of its auditors to retirement by July 1, 2022.
At both DRS and DOT, just as is likely true at many other agencies, the cost of not hiring staff is expensive. DRS Deputy Commissioner John Biello recently testified before the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee that each auditor recovers $800-$1,000 per hour, or about $2 million per year. In other words, at DRS alone, not hiring an auditor literally costs $2 million in potential revenue for all of us taxpayers.
Meanwhile at DOT, when we don’t have enough engineers, planners or auditors to perform a given task, private consultants are retained instead. These outside workers’ hourly wages are higher than DOT’s in-house employees and come with the added cost of their employer’s “burden, fringe, and overhead” (BFO) – as much as 150% or more.
That BFO percentage is added to the consultant employee’s hourly rate. Thus, a consultant whose employee is paid $60/hour may take in as much as $150/hour for that employee (assuming a BFO rate of 150%).
In one recent example, DOT planned to assign a consultant to do the job of a retiring state employee. The consultant engineering firm hired that same state employee upon his retirement. Thankfully the Office of State Ethics intervened, issuing an opinion that the arrangement would violate Connecticut’s revolving door law. Otherwise, the agency would have paid the consultant engineering firm multiples of that retired employee’s former taxpayer-funded state wages to do his former job.
Another legislative proposal aimed at solving this crisis stems from the recommendations of a task force that studied the state workforce in anticipation of a looming “retirement cliff.” This initiative taps the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC) to collaborate on developing strategic plans to examine positions and job classifications to be replaced. While not automated, as it was in HB 5445, it promises a thoughtful approach to resolving staffing shortfalls where a closer look is warranted.
Another DOT example helps illustrate the value of this initiative. Before authorizing the agency to create and fill 206 engineering, planning, and accounting positions in response to federal infrastructure legislation, the Office of Policy and Management wanted to authorize hiring temporary “durational” employees. These positions would expire when the added federal funding expired.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is immeasurable institutional knowledge and experience that goes into the designing, constructing, and inspection of roads, bridges and even bike paths. Filling such positions with durational bureaucrats in the hopes of saving a little money up front is short-sighted and dangerous in the long run.
With a May 4 adjournment deadline quickly approaching, time is short for lawmakers to take meaningful steps toward funding Connecticut’s future. Taken together, these two raised bills would go a long way toward assuring the vital public services all state residents and businesses depend on.
Alice Sexton is Treasurer of the Administrative & Residual (A&R) Employees Union, AFT Local 4200. The A&R Employees union represents approximately 2,800 professionals in State of Connecticut executive branch agencies, including accountants, lawyers, contract specialists, research analysts, economists, and scores more.
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