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March 26, 2013

SC state worker numbers continue to dwindle

State lawmakers have cut the state’s work force by 15 percent over the past 13 years, a result of budget cuts and state agencies relying more on private companies to provide public services.

State lawmakers have cut the state’s work force by 15 percent over the past 13 years, a result of budget cuts and state agencies relying more on private companies to provide public services.

The state’s $22.7 billion spending plan – approved by the House of Representatives earlier this month – has money to pay for 66,149 employees, down 154 positions from the current budget and more than 11,000 from 2000, when the state had close to 78,000 employees.

And those are just the authorized positions. On June 30, the state had close to 10,000 vacancies, bringing the state’s total workforce to just more than 56,000 people.

Meanwhile, the state’s population has increased 18 percent since 2000, leading critics to argue the state’s work force is forced to do more with less, and with less pay.

Workers at South Carolina’s Department of Social Services each manage 1,001 child support cases per employee, the highest caseload in the country. The national average is 280 cases per employee.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control reports it routinely loses workers to private sector jobs paying 40 percent more, leaving the agency with 58 unfilled positions in 2012.

And of the 855 people the Department of Corrections hired in 2011, only 57 percent of them were still working for the department one year later.

All but a handful of employees are not slated to get raises next year – which would be the fourth year in the past five that state workers received no pay bump.

“We are kicking the can down the road, and the citizens are going to end up paying for it,” said Carlton Washington, executive director of the S.C. State Employees Association. “When we are not able to retain (state) troopers and retain health inspectors, then the public suffers and we have health issues. That’s what we are concerned about.”

But others say the shrinking work force is a good thing because it forces state agencies to do their jobs better. Twenty years ago, the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs operated some large residential facilities. They had their own laundry service and pharmacy. They even had employees whose job was to monitor the department’s programs and come up with suggestions on how to do them better.

The department now pays private companies to do all of those things. As a result, the agency’s authorized work force has been nearly cut in half to 2,191 positions from 4,177 positions in 1996.

“Is there somebody out there that can do it just as good or better for the same or less money? Then it makes sense to look at a partnership,” agency spokeswoman Lois Park-Mole said. “We’ve closed print shops, we’ve changed how we do food service, we have closed a warehouse, we have reorganized. You are going to hear some of these things from a multitude of state agencies.”

‘Praying we don’t’

State governments across the country have been shrinking their work forces, with total employment falling 23 percent across all state governments from 2000 to 2011, according to Annual Surveys of Public Employment and Payroll by the U.S. Census Department.

And in South Carolina, lawmakers are urging more privatization.

The state budget includes a temporary law – it expires after one year – ordering the Department of Mental Health to study privatizing its Sexually Violent Predator Program, which detains and treats people a jury declares to be a danger to the community. Lawmakers gave the program $11 million in 2012, and that is expected to grow by $1.4 million in 2013. State officials expect the costs to continue to increase as more people are added to the program.

While some agencies choose to trim their work force, others are forced to by budget cuts. Five years ago, when lawmakers had to cut billions of dollars out of the budget because of the recession, the Department of Juvenile Justice had to lay off 285 people. The economy is improving, but those employees are not coming back.

“I don’t think we are going to have to (add more positions). “I’m praying we don’t,” said Margaret Barber, executive director for the Department of Juvenile Justice. “We have brought our (juvenile) numbers down. We don’t really need to.”

In October, the state Budget and Control Board eliminated 466 positions across state government that had been vacant for at least one year, which they are allowed to do by law.

But the House’s 2013-14 budget added 344 new positions, including 25 new agents at the Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole, three investigators at the newly created Inspector General’s office and 12 firefighters for the Forestry Commission.

“I’m very leery about just adding (full-time employees) and growing government,” House budget chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, said. “Throughout the years we’ve been reducing the number of (full-time employees) and now we’re slowly putting them back as well.”

No raises?

Washington, with the state employees association, did not say lawmakers should hire more workers – he just thinks they should pay their current workers more money.

Last year, with more than $1 billion in new money to spend, lawmakers approved a 3 percent pay raise for state workers, the first pay increase in three years.

For 2013, the House version of the budget includes a 3 percent pay raise for corrections officers at maximum security prisons.

But no one else gets a raise, and Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland and a supporter of the raise, said it likely will not happen.

“In talking with some of my colleagues, there are other priorities that they have. They are saying we took care of the state employees last year,” Jackson said. “It will be an uphill battle to get something in, particularly with the House not doing anything.”

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