Analysts, Workers See Crisis in Staffing Levels at State Agencies

By William F. Zorzi

Maryland government needs to fill more than 2,600 positions in its executive branch agencies – nearly half of them in the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services – at a cost of more than $96 million, a new study recommends.

The study, by the Department of Legislative Services, a nonpartisan agency attached to the legislature, found more than 1,500 vacancies in 11 state agencies, which analysts maintain also require another 1,100 employee hires to bring them up to full strength.

The study and report, presented Tuesday to the Senate and House of Delegates budget committees, is the culmination of a two-year examination of state agencies by DLS’s Office of Policy Analysis.

David B. Juppe, senior operating budget manager of DLS’s Office of Policy Analysis, said the number of new hires would actually have been “much higher” than recommended, had his agency considered only anecdotal evidence. But, he said, analysts did not include findings for any positions they could not measure against benchmarks and established standards.

Brinkley

Budget Secretary David R. Brinkley

The study shows that the executive branch agencies – excluding higher education – have lost nearly 5,400 positions in the last 16 years and over three administrations, after accounting for the closures of state facilities.

Moreover, pay increases have not kept pace with those of other governments, which has made it difficult for some state agencies to hire and retain employees. This has resulted in high vacancy rates, both across agencies and for specific position classes, the analysis found.

The biggest problems with shortages identified are correctional officers and health workers, particularly nurses, the report showed.

The report found that there were 937 vacant positions for public safety workers across the state – mostly correctional officers — based on data from earlier last fall. Juppe noted, however, that number is likely now more than 1,000.

His office also recommended hiring an additional 154 persons for the Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Deborah E. Williams, a former correctional officer who retired from Eastern Correctional Institution’s Poplar Hill Pre-Release Unit in November, told lawmakers the problem with staffing levels at the state’s prisons has reached a critical point.

“We’re still hearing about assaults,” Williams said after testifying. “They think mandatory overtime is the answer, but you’re going to have zombies walking around.”

Timothy J. Bolden, a direct care assistant at the Eastern Shore Hospital Center in Cambridge, said he has been beaten up and punched in the face by patients while on the job, and that staffing levels at his hospital have been cut nearly in half.

Bolden said the problem in state hospitals is twofold. One is that court referrals to state hospitals are now about “99 percent forensic” cases – persons held for both mental evaluation and as not criminally responsible patients. Another challenge is recruiting and keeping staff, some of whose salaries start at $25,000 a year.

“I’d like to see more staff,” Bolden said, “and salary increases … for the supporting staff.”

Sue Esty, legislative and political director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 3, one of the unions representing state workers, described the situation as being “at a crisis level.”

“Many agencies admit it is difficult to recruit new employees,” Esty said. “Once hired, the workloads and mandatory overtime cause them to leave.”

But then, she said, remaining employees are faced with yet higher workloads and limited pay, which only encourages many of them to leave, leaving still others behind.

“The bottom line is that changes are needed,” she told lawmakers, making her point for hiring additional workers and increasing compensation. “We urge you to break this cycle.”

The report was presented to the committees on the same day that Gov. Larry Hogan’s $44.4 billion budget was formally sent to the General Assembly.

Testifying yesterday, David R. Brinkley, secretary of Budget and Management, thanked Juppe for his office’s work and study, and pointed out that the state budget was prepared before the DLS report was released.

“Changing Maryland for the better requires us to ensure that state agencies are high-performance organizations,” Brinkley said. “Right-sizing the state’s workforce is a critical component of that, as is the state’s ability to recruit, maintain and reward a modern workforce.”

He said his agency saw Tuesday’s hearings as a “conversation” about state employees.

The Hogan administration also took the opportunity to announce that it had reached agreement with all the state’s labor unions – even though the final agreement was struck on New Year’s Eve, two and a half weeks ago.

The agreements will provide a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment, effective Jan. 1, 2019. If revenues for the current fiscal year exceed December’s projections by $75 million, state employees will also receive an additional half-percent COLA and a one-time $500 bonus on April 1, 2019.

To address ongoing problems in public safety and health departments, the state is introducing a hiring bonus of up to $5,000 for correctional officers who meet certain eligibility criteria, along with a $3,000 retention and attendance bonus for registered nurses and correctional officers who meet certain criteria.

Asked about the timing of the release of this information by the governor’s office, Douglass V. Mayer said Tuesday’s release of the budget, which included the 2 percent COLA for state employees, was the reason for waiting 17 days to announce the agreements.

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