State Employee Retention
Finding qualified candidates may be a key first step to building a strong and full state workforce, but retaining workers is perhaps even more critical. Hiring new employees is expensive, requiring time and resources spent on recruitment and training. And given how challenging it has become to find new employees, states may want to evaluate what may be causing turnover within state government as well as strategies for improving retention.
States are reporting record high turnover rates, particularly among low-paying and high-stress positions. Georgia officials recently noted a 95% turnover rate for juvenile justice corrections officers. Missouri reported turnover rates above 30% in six different state agencies, with their Department of Mental Health reporting 38% turnover. A recent survey of state and local workers across the country found that over half are actively looking for new jobs. A survey of state workers in Wyoming showed that nearly two-thirds of their state workforce is looking for employment elsewhere.
When asked why state workers want to leave their job, low pay and burnout were the two most cited reasons given. A decreasing supply of workers means that employers will need to offer better pay, benefits and working conditions to compete for talent. This can be challenging for public sector employers who are often constrained by budget processes and politics. Furthermore, as states struggle to replace departing workers the work demands placed on remaining employees only grows, leading to more burnout. It’s a cycle that, if left unaddressed, may lead to a mass exodus away from public sector employment leaving critical public services unstaffed.
What can states do to address retention challenges? Several options are available to policymakers, including identifying accommodations and flexibility that help employees succeed in their jobs and reduce burnout. States can also address common employment challenges that often pull workers out of the workforce, such as health issues and child care needs. These options along with specific state examples are explored in more detail below:
Wages and Benefits
Many states publish compensation plans that outline state employee salaries and benefits for the upcoming state fiscal year, or biennium. These compensation plans are typically subject to the state budget process with the legislature giving the final sign off on any broad adjustments to salary schedules. This process can be slow and may struggle to react to overall shifts in the labor market in a timely manner. Overall wages have increased since 2019 as the labor market sees a record high number of job openings and the pandemic has led millions of workers to reevaluate their careers.
To better gauge how state employee salaries compare with statewide prevailing wages, states can perform salary studies to determine prevailing wages for various types of positions.
State Policy Examples
- Colorado performs a prevailing wage study every two years and reports the findings to the Legislature as it considers the final compensation plan.
While the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to provide reasonable workplace accommodations to workers with disabilities, managers may not be aware of what accommodations are available or effective. Without effective workplace accommodations, states may be unintentionally excluding workers, or losing workers, who otherwise may be high-performing employees. While accommodations are often discussed as part of the hiring process, current employees commonly require new accommodations if a disability develops during their employment. Educating current employees about your state’s accommodation process can be a key step toward retaining workers versus losing them because of an inability to perform their duties in the same manner as before.
Each state handles the accommodation process differently. In some states, each state agency or department identifies appropriate accommodations for staff and pays for it with their unit’s budget. This approach may give managers more flexibility but can also create barriers to employment if an agency has a limited budget or limited knowledge about effective accommodations.
A different approach is to centralize the workplace accommodations process to create equity across state agencies in funding and expertise. Funding accommodations outside of an agency’s own budget can help raise the bar of what is “reasonable” and may also relieve manager’s fears about cost. Centralizing the accommodations process can also create a knowledge hub to help managers identify affordable and effective accommodations for each worker’s individual needs.
The federal government can be a great resource for managers as well. The Job Accommodations Network, also known as JAN, provides free one-on-one consultations with public and private sector employers, and employees, to help identify effective and affordable workplace accommodations.
State Policy Examples
- Alaska not only employs a federally-required State ADA Coordinator but also embeds an ADA coordinator within the executive branch departments and even within larger state agencies.
- Minnesota operates a centralized accommodations fund within the state budget that reimburses agencies for disability-related accommodations.
- Massachusetts operates a Reasonable Accommodation Capital Reserve Account meant to supplement existing agency resources. Established in fiscal year 2009, state agencies may make requests for supplemental funding for accommodations
- Vermont utilizes a rigorous and streamlined Request for Reasonable Accommodation process for state employee accommodation requests. Vermont’s process involves a review committee for accommodations exceeding $500 and when there is a disagreement between department and employee on the reasonable accommodation offered or denial of a request at the department level.
Keeping Injured and Ill Employees Connected to Work
When workers suffer an injury or illness that interrupts their ability to work, keeping them connected to their job can be a critical step to retaining them long-term. When workers experience long absences due to injury or illness, they are far less likely to ever return to the workforce. Many factors contribute to this, including financial insecurity, increased reliance on income-based public benefits, reduced self-esteem and other disability-related employment barriers. States can utilize their workers’ compensation programs and vocational rehabilitation services to help workers perform some work duties while they rehabilitate, if medically safe. Providing part-time work during recovery, alternative work assignments, remote work options and other flexibility can help employees recovering from life-altering events. State vocational rehabilitation agencies have expertise in worker retention but are often underfunded and understaffed meaning they must triage their services to those in the most need.
JAN’s 2017 report outlines nine state policy options to help injured and ill workers return to the workplace. They include partial return to work programs to allow for a more gradual return; transitionary disability benefits that reduce over time as work time increases; avoiding a benefit cliff effect; and state-funded wage subsidies for employers who hire workers recovering from a prior injury or illness.
State Policy Examples
- Delaware operates a return-to-work program for state employees that tasks coordinators with working with disability insurance carriers, physicians and employers to ensure quick re-entry into the workforce.
- New Jersey requires employers to provide hiring preference to employees who have reached maximum medical improvement following work-related injury.
- Oregon pays employers who allow injured workers to return to their workplace a wage subsidy equal to 45% of the injured employee’s gross wages for up to 66 work days.
- North Dakota’s Preferred Worker Program provides injured workers with benefits such as a work-search allowance and reimbursement for new tools and equipment.