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Don’t Cry for State Workers, Virginia; The Truth is They'll Never Leave You

Recently, Governor Kaine announced that nearly 600 state employees would be laid off with further cuts looming. While many lament for those who are losing jobs, overlooked is the fact that 800 vacant state positions will be eliminated in an effort to erase the budget shortfall. It is the latter figure that is most telling about positions in state government.
Over the past few years some of Virginia’s largest state agencies have had dozens, if not hundreds, of vacant positions at any given time. However, to meet the Governor’s mandated 5 to 15 percent budget reductions, many agencies simply eliminated nearly all vacant positions. As a result, many of these agencies now have fewer than 10 advertised positions.


This should raise red flags for Virginians. If dozens of once deemed necessary jobs can be whittled down to a handful of vacancies in a matter of weeks, we must ask: were these positions ever really needed?


One possibility is that the hundreds of vacant positions posted a few weeks ago were not truly necessary. Absent a budget shortage would these jobs have been filled regardless of need? Or perhaps these positions were simply placeholders, never intended to be filled, but instead, created and advertised simply to pad the budget with fat that could be easily trimmed. Or maybe the public perceives that saving a current employee is more important than eliminating a would-be employee. In this scenario, a less necessary person often remains employed at the cost of a more necessary job.


In all of these circumstances, the taxpayers of Virginia are given less than the best possible service at a higher cost.


A commonly held belief is that employees in the public sector generally accept lower compensation than employees in the private sector for the same work. Disputing that notion are numerous published comparisons of public and private compensation packages that show a three to four times higher per hour cost of employing state workers. Despite these analyses, the perception remains that state workers earn less than their private counterparts.


For state workers, the supposed concession is this: lower pay for better benefits, increased job security and attractive retirement packages. Over time, this creates an environment of little turnover as individuals stay in positions for decades and develop a feeling of entitlement to future benefits. Moreover, little turnover ensures an aging work force and a curb against innovation.


For entry and mid level positions, the best and brightest might not be attracted to the public sector because the jobs are not in a dynamic environment and the perceived rewards only come with twenty years of continued service. While this may ensure the government a level of stability, it breeds complacency, apathy and stagnation.


It is already well known that providing medical benefits and retirement packages to state workers is costing the state handsomely. However, there are additional costly rewards that come with decades of state service. In Virginia, workers employed by the state for more than 25 years earn nine hours of leave time each pay period. Or put another way, one day off for every two weeks worked. In a normal work year, that can equate to almost a month of paid vacation, and do not fret if it is not used right away, much will roll over from one year to the next.


In Virginia, lavish benefit packages are increasing operating costs while the practice of giving excessive accumulated paid leave is decreasing productivity.


A recent JLARC study cites job security and stability as the main draw for careers in state government. However, some of the job security is structured in the inability to dismiss inept state workers, further contributing to high payroll costs.


Being fired from a state job is not impossible, but it is unlikely. A series of mandatory procedures and protocols must be adhered to. Further, should a worker feel wrongfully fired, a grievance case is the natural course of action. In an effort to preclude a firing and grievance case, management may just move a problem worker to a vacant position (that may or may not be compatible with the employee’s skill set), or create a new position for the individual in another manager’s empire. Then, an additional state employee may be hired to fill the new vacancy created by the transfer.


The current budget shortage presents a wonderful opportunity to reevaluate and restructure state employee compensation. For Virginia to thrive in the coming years, payroll costs must decrease by eliminating redundant and non-essential positions. Fresh blood must be infused into the system. State positions need to be made more attractive to young, innovative workers. At the same time, these workers need to be compensated adequately. Real solutions will require time, managerial commitment and sound foresight.


When making the difficult decision of eliminating a position, consideration should not be confined solely to its significance and cost. The method of funding the position must also be taken into account. Some positions are fully or partially financed with federal dollars. So long as performance thresholds are met and federal regulations are adhered to, these employees should be retained and utilized to the fullest. It is nonsensical to try to decrease a state budget by eliminating federally funded employees.


In the coming months, the abundance of leave time needs to be tackled. Obviously, correctly repairing the benefit system will take time and careful thought. In the short term, paid leave used as political currency needs to be eliminated.


The Governor, in an effort to appease state workers who will not be receiving raises, has extended holiday and paid leave. At a time when American citizens and businesses are looking to the government for leadership and essential services, these political maneuvers, which decrease both inefficiency and productivity, should not be tolerated.


As state employees are being shuffled from one ballooning agency to another, the state must take care in how the repackaging occurs. Jamming a square peg into a round hole in order to appear to lay off fewer employees will not benefit Virginia in the long run. It must be understood that for each individual displaced into a foreign agency to which they have neither the requisite experience nor knowledge, a potentially better qualified and unemployed Virginian is denied the same opportunity.


There are serious pains that must be endured to correctly fix Virginia’s system of state employee compensation. It is not a hopeless situation, but honest sacrifices must be made and realistic policies enacted.

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