COVID-19’s impacts on the workforce have been well-documented as employees have fled their full-time jobs as part of the Great Resignation and employers have struggled to replace them.
But a March report on the impact of the pandemic on the public sector included a startling statistic: more than half of all the local and state government workers surveyed said they were thinking about leaving their jobs.
In the national survey, the latest of four conducted by MissionSquare Research Institute during the public health crisis, 36% of respondents said the pandemic had made them consider switching jobs. Additionally, 32% of workers said they were considering retirement, while 28% said they were thinking of leaving the workforce for the foreseeable future.
“Those that are considering leaving the workforce entirely, burnout is No. 1, followed by (wanting) more time to do things that bring them joy,” Managing Director Joshua Franzel said. “Those that are leaving their jobs voluntarily to do something else, the stress led them to leave voluntarily, and then also concerns about serving the public during a continuing pandemic.”
Nationwide, state and local employment levels dropped roughly 3.5% between February 2020 and February 2022, according to MissionSquare, representing roughly 695,000 positions. And in January, job openings for state and local government positions reached their highest rate in two decades.
Massachusetts has not been immune. The Executive Office of Health and Human Services has seen the most significant downward trend in staffing levels among the executive branch since the onset of the pandemic, according to the state’s employee diversity dashboard.
In the last quarter of fiscal 2019, there were just over 22,000 full-time-equivalent (FTE) staff under HHS. But as of the second quarter of fiscal 2022, that number had dropped to 20,996, a roughly 4.6% decrease. Data from the third quarter of fiscal 2022 show that levels now sit at roughly 21,047 FTE employees.
The Department of Developmental Services, which provides support to children and adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, accounts for a substantial chunk of this shift. The department went from 5,921 FTE staff in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019 to 5,187 FTE staff in the third quarter of fiscal 2022, per the state’s dashboard, a 12.4% decrease.
In the Department of Children and Families, staff levels went from about 4,250 FTE employees in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019 to 4,068 in the second quarter of fiscal 2022 and 4,105 in the third. There has also been a decline in staffing at the Department of Youth Services, with 824 FTE employees in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019 and 739 FTE staff in the third quarter of fiscal 2022.
Some other secretariats have seen slight staffing increases over the past few years, such as the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, which grew from 893 FTE employees in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019 to 979 FTE employees in the third quarter of fiscal 2022.
Under HHS, the Department of Public Health swelled slightly during the first years of the pandemic, with 2,840 FTE staff in the fourth quarter of fiscal 2019 and about 3,005 in the third quarter of fiscal 2021. The department now staffs about 2,909 FTE employees, fiscal 2022 data show.
In response to a request for an interview about staffing shortages, a spokesperson from the Executive Office of Administration and Finance said in an email that the state, much like the private sector, has faced particular employment challenges for human services and direct care positions during the pandemic.
Staffing levels for the executive branch as a whole declined from 42,682 FTE employees in the fourth quarter of 2021 to 41,320 in the second quarter of fiscal 2022, which Administration and Finance partly attributed to “voluntary and involuntary separations” associated with an executive order requiring COVID-19 vaccination.
Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a supplemental budget for fiscal 2022 that included roughly $400 million in rate enhancements for human services providers.
“The Administration continuously works to ensure sufficient staffing across its agencies,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The Human Resources Division provides support to agencies in recruitment and retention efforts, so the Commonwealth can continue to sustain a talented workforce that effectively serves the residents of the Commonwealth.”
Last week, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito reminded the Local Government Advisory Committee that the administration’s $3.5 billion economic development bill includes $20 million to fund local public workforce training grants.
“That’s to help you with your own workforce and help you to onboard people that might not see themselves in municipal service, but might be exiting another profession in the private sector, that clearly the experience is relevant and could be helpful to you,” Polito said.
Rep. Josh Cutler, chair of the Joint Committee on Workforce and Labor Development, has received calls from constituents who are struggling to find care for their loved ones. He said the budget proposal passed by the House last month would invest in key human services areas, including through a new tuition forgiveness program for Department of Mental Health workers.
Cutler also co-chaired the state’s Future of Work Commission, which released a report on its findings in July. In speaking with experts and residents, Cutler said it became apparent that the ability to work often hinges on access to other services.
“One of the prevailing sentiments that kept coming back up was child care and other wraparound services, things like access to broadband,” Cutler said. “If you live in certain parts of the state, it’s not a given that you have access to quality broadband.”
At the same time, the available labor pool is smaller than in the past thanks to an aging population and an acceleration in retirements, which hit a 20-year high among state and local workers in the summer of 2020.
“The median age of state and local government workers is about three to five years higher than that for private sector workers,” MissionSquare Senior Research Analyst Gerald Young said. “And in talking to those human resource folks, more than half of them are saying that the largest wave of coming retirements is still in the next few years.”
MissionSquare’s research identified a few potential strategies to help state and local governments retain employees, such as increasing compensation; showing appreciation for workers through personal recognition and increased flexibility; offering financial resources such as increased retirement contributions; prioritizing employee safety and mental health; and emphasizing the impact of staff’s work in the community.
Some states have also begun considering ways to make it easier for retired professionals to come back into the fold. Last year, Bay State lawmakers overrode a Baker veto to increase the limit on the number of hours public retirees can work from 960 hours annually to 1,200.
“Oftentimes in the private sector, if there’s a need to fill especially short term staffing holes, they look to bring back retirees, rehire retirees,” Franzel said. “Based on the way many state pension systems are governed, it’s often harder to do that because of how pensions are calculated and administered.”
Cutler noted that the House’s budget proposal includes $137 million for the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, which is a $20 million increase over last year and will help fund “upskilling” and training programs.
In his view, one potential silver lining of the pandemic is that it has put more power back into the hands of workers.
“I think the sort of pendulum has swung back in support of the worker and I think the workers, in many cases, have more leverage now than maybe they did in the past. I think it’s a good thing,” Cutler said. “We’re in an era of worker empowerment. So I think employers are recognizing that and good employers are making changes based on that.”