The long-expected “silver tsunami” of state employee retirements before July 1 will not have a significant impact on the size of the public sector workforce, members of Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration said Wednesday.
A change in the cost of living benefits of state retirees, negotiated back in 2017, incentivized eligible state workers to retire before Friday, which is the start of the new fiscal year. As of last week, the state Comptroller’s Office was reporting that a total of 3,939 state employees had filed retirement applications since the start of this year.
However, during a morning press conference in the lobby of a Hartford building housing state IT offices, Lamont and several of his agency managers largely dismissed the looming retirement cliff. Thanks to recent hiring efforts, the state’s Executive Branch workforce now sits at around 31,000 people, the highest number since 2016, they said.
“The much-discussed silver tsunami is more like a summer storm than a tsunami,” Lamont said. “We’re probably going to end up this fiscal year with about the same number of employees as we had a year ago, about the same number of employees as we had, say, five years ago.”
In the past year, the state posted more than 4,000 job openings, screened 200,000 applications and hired more than 6,000 new state employees, Chief Human Resources Officer Nick Hermes said.
“Typically the state would hire about 4,000 to 5,000 employees each year. So we’ve blown that away this year,” Hermes said.
Some areas of concern
Despite the better-than-expected job numbers, officials identified some agencies as “hot spots,” where additional staff was still needed. Licensed health care workers, engineers and IT professionals have proven difficult to retain, Hermes said. Meanwhile, Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Michelle Gilman said the COVID-19 crisis had exacerbated staffing at state medical facilities.
“The pandemic, to no one’s surprise, also brought burnout within the [health care] industry and challenges in terms of retaining and recruiting,” Gilman said.
Hermes said the recently adopted package of raises and bonuses for state workers gave the administration more flexibility to recruit or retain qualified employees with competitive salaries. The plan, negotiated with a coalition of state worker unions, is expected to cost around $1.87 billion over the next four years.
“There was a specific effort by all parties to increase the compensation for our most-difficult-to-fill roles in the state,” Hermes said. “These are competitive jobs, as the governor mentioned, everywhere across the globe. We needed to take a hard look in the mirror and be competitive in this market if we’re serious about hiring.”
The governor suggested the state should re-evaluate some of the qualifications necessary to apply for state jobs. While requiring a college degree makes sense for some positions, it impedes recruitment for others, he said.
“I think we ought to think more about skills and less about credentials,” Lamont said. “That opens up the lens and I think it gives more people an opportunity.”
Public-sector labor unions reacted to the administration’s press conference with a statement through the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which alleged the recent retirements had exacerbated shortfalls in vital state services.
“It’s time for the Lamont administration to get to work with urgency on hiring Connecticut’s new generation of devoted public servants,” Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199NE, said. “At risk-children and those seeking healing from the scourges of addiction and mental illness can’t wait. It’s time to expand services and save lives.”
Administration officials could not provide figures Wednesday for how many state employees they would ultimately like to hire, nor could they estimate how many currently vacant positions they plan to leave unfilled. Both were moving targets, they said.
However, the governor said that despite a potential economic recession on the horizon, he did not anticipate down-sizing the state workforce.
“Unlike the private sector, when there’s a recession you just make fewer widgets, in the public sector if there’s a recession there’s probably more needs,” Lamont said, adding the recently passed budget was designed to withstand the strains of a recession.
“I do that for two reasons: To make sure these people know we’re not going to be slashing services, not going to be laying people off and (to) let the business community know we’re not going to have to raise taxes,” Lamont said.