State Capitol (CTNewsJunkie file photo)

A report detailing state workforce staffing levels at the beginning of July found deep vacancies in social safety net agencies like the Department of Developmental Services, where more than one-third of positions were vacant. 

Connecticut’s state government weathered a surge of retirements ahead of July 1, when a previously negotiated change in retiree cost of living benefits incentivized retirement for those who were eligible. 

In late June, Gov. Ned Lamont and members of his administration held a press conference to report that despite some “hot spots,” the so-called “silver tsunami” had been less severe than anticipated. 

However, a recent state workforce report found that of 6,945 state vacancies, 1,512 were at the Developmental Services Department. The agency, which is tasked with caring for people with intellectual disabilities, had 2,543 employees as of June 30.

A spokesperson for DDS referred questions regarding this story to the Department of Administrative Services. In an email, Lora Rae Anderson, a spokesperson for DAS and the governor’s office, said that DDS staffing levels remain in flux as recruitment efforts proceed.

“Recruitment to refill direct care and clinical positions has been challenging, as it has been across the nation,” Anderson said. “These two factors combined have led to vacancies. However, it’s critical to note that the agency has not reduced service delivery as a result.  State agencies continue to work in partnership to devise and deliver new recruitment strategies to fill these vacant positions.”

In an email, Jim Welch, lead investigator at Disability Rights Connecticut, said his organization would be scrutinizing state staffing levels to ensure they did not result in an exhausted workforce. 

Welch said he suspected the number of vacancies at DDS had more to do with the agency’s longtime transition away from offering direct services than the state’s recent swell of retirements. According to the report, 86 DDS employees had retired as of June 1.

“I know that, over the years – decades, really – DDS has substantially reduced its provision of direct services to persons with Intellectual Disability, becoming more of a ‘funder’ of services,” Welch said. 

“DRCT will be taking a close look at staffing situations at DDS and other state agencies as the implications of this very high retirement rate roll out and the use of temporary worker retirees begins to fade,” Welch said.

DDS was not the only social service agency with significant vacancies. As of the end of June, the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services had 818 vacancies and 3,158 employees. Meanwhile, the Department of Social Services had 368 vacancies and 1,593 employees. 

The vacancies at the Mental Health and Addiction Services Department have prompted SEIU 1199NE, the union which represents the agency’s workforce, to organize a Tuesday afternoon demonstration to deliver a letter to DMHAS Commissioner Nancy Navaretta, calling on the state to fill workforce vacancies. 

“This staffing crisis has created an even wider gap in services to individuals who were not fortunate enough to receive the familiar and communal support many of us are accustomed to,” union delegates wrote. “This inaction by the DMHAS administration has compromised care resulting in a choice between life and death for the most vulnerable individuals.”

Other agencies with significant vacancies included the Department of Children and Families, with 355 vacant jobs and 2,837 employees, the Department of Correction, which had 604 vacant positions and 5,738 employees, the Department of Energy and Environmental Services, which had 698 vacancies and 1,542 employees, and the Department of Transportation, which had 551 vacancies and 2,964 employees. 

In June, administration officials could not provide figures 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.

The letter, which union members plan to deliver on Tuesday, pushes for answers.

“This is now the fifth time during the past six weeks we have reached out to you in writing to ask about your goals for hiring and the reopening of addiction services,” SEIU delegates wrote. “We are still awaiting direct and clear responses to these questions, even as the crisis keeps growing and the lives of Connecticut residents continue to be put at risk due to the reduction of these services.”

The administration has looked for opportunities to save money as state workers have retired. It commissioned a report by the Boston Consulting Group which last year estimated the state could find between $600 million and $900 million in savings related to expected workforce reductions.

However, last month Lamont told reporters he did not plan to downsize the state government even with the threat of an economic recession on the horizon.

“[W]e’re not going to be slashing services, not going to be laying people off,” Lamont said.

Despite recent retirements, the governor’s administration said it has generally maintained state workforce numbers.

“While 2022 brought significant retirements, the State Executive Branch as a whole is operating with it’s highest position count since 2016. So, while we know we have work to do, we remain optimistic,” Anderson said.