Politics & Government

Help wanted: 14 percent of SC state jobs vacant

Lt. Regina Mays talks with Joan Hooks during a job fair in August at Midlands Technical College in Columbia. The South Carolina Department of Corrections is working hard to recruit employees, including correctional officers.
Lt. Regina Mays talks with Joan Hooks during a job fair in August at Midlands Technical College in Columbia. The South Carolina Department of Corrections is working hard to recruit employees, including correctional officers. tglantz@thestate.com

Cesily Hardee recently took copies of her résumé, cover letter and degree to back-to-back job fairs held by S.C. state agencies.

“Searching for a job is a full-time job,” said Hardee, who applied to be a correctional officer at the Department of Juvenile Justice job fair on March 17. The day before, she applied for a post at the Department of Mental Health.

Hardee, 27, is hoping to land one of the roughly 6,000 positions that are open across state government.

While Hardee is looking for a job, state agencies are struggling to recruit and retain employees.

Why?

State workers are underpaid compared to their counterparts in local government or the private sector. State employees also could see their already low take-home pay shrink more this year if their retirement costs are increased without an offsetting raise from the S.C. Legislature.

Low pay isn’t the only factor that makes it hard for state agencies to fill vacancies. The workload of many state workers also has increased in recent years.

In the wake of the Great Recession, lawmakers cut thousands of state jobs, in part because of falling tax revenues and, in part, because of a conservative GOP belief in smaller government.

As a result, the remaining state workers absorbed more duties. Many were forced to work overtime and burned out. When those workers quit, they contributed to high turnover rates at some agencies – where nearly 15 percent of jobs are open.

Six full-time recruiters, job advertising blitz at Corrections

Help is wanted in state government.

Of the roughly 42,500 full-time-equivalent positions at state agencies across South Carolina, 14 percent are vacant, according to the Department of Administration. That excludes workers at S.C. universities, many paid by tuition and federal money, and the judicial and legislative departments.

Those vacancies are up from 11 percent of about 46,300 state jobs in 2007, before the Great Recession.

Of the state’s 10 largest agencies, ranked by employment, nine have more than 10 percent of their positions vacant.

Topping the list is the S.C. Department of Corrections, tasked with housing criminals, which has 21 percent, or 1,293, of its jobs open.

In an attempt to fill those jobs, the Corrections Department employs six full-time recruiters.

“Being a correctional officer is not an easy job,” said Corrections director Bryan Stirling. “We work night and day to make sure the state of South Carolina is safe.”

The agency also has to compete for workers against county sheriff’s offices and private businesses who pay more.

“We are doing what we can to make the pay more competitive and more enticing for people to come in,” Stirling said.

Correctional officers at maximum-security S.C. prisons make $34,713 a year after six months on the job.

Before recent changes, it would have taken two years for correctional officers at those facilities, which house the most violent and dangerous criminals, to reach $34,257.

Officers at minimum-security prisons now start at $30,263 a year, pay that it, until recently, took officers 18 months to reach.

Even with those increases, the average S.C. salary for police and sheriff’s patrol officers – $40,340, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics – is far higher.

‘They ask about the pay’

Other state agencies are searching for workers, too.

The 1,500-employee state Department of Juvenile Justice had 195 unfilled positions last week.

Lt. Shaquan Grooms, who supervises correctional officers, interviewed job candidates at the recent job fair and answered their questions.

“Of course, they ask about the pay,” Grooms said.

The answers those job applicants get might turn them away.

In 2016, a state-paid consultant surveyed S.C. state salaries, finding state workers’ “actual pay is uncompetitive.”

The survey found:

▪  The pay of S.C. state agency workers lags salaries paid by other states by 15 percent

▪  The pay of S.C. state agency workers lags other public-sector jobs, such as city and county workers, by 16 percent

▪  The pay of S.C. state agency workers lags S.C. private-sector jobs by 18 percent

“This creates challenges both in recruit and retention of employees,” the study said.

For example, a first-year juvenile correctional officer earns about $30,000, according to Juvenile Justice.

Grooms said she pitches perks beside pay. The Juvenile Justice supervisor tells job candidates that an entry-level job at the agency is a foundation, offering a chance for advancement.

She also tries to sell state workers’ benefits, and promotes the fact that officers have a long weekend every other weekend and wear uniforms, saving the cost of a workplace wardrobe.

Favoring ‘pork’ and ‘corporate welfare’

The problem is legislators don’t place a priority on paying state workers decently, said S.C. State Employees’ Association Director Carlton Washington.

The S.C. House’s proposed budget for next year doesn’t include a pay raise for most state workers. Instead, House members put $150 million into the state’s pension system, indirectly helping state workers, and agreed to pick up the tab for employees’ higher health insurance premiums.

The Senate’s budget panel is poised to reveal its proposed budget on Tuesday, and it could include a one-time bonus for state employees.

But Washington says there is room in the budget to find the roughly $18 million needed for a 1 percent pay raise for state workers.

He pointed to $6 million in extra money that the House voted to give Parks, Recreation and Tourism – “pork projects,” Washington said – and $22 million the House voted to give the state Commerce Department to attract new companies to the state – “corporate welfare,” Washington said.

Washington also pointed to proposals to increase taxes to pay to repair the state’s roads or borrow money to fix deteriorating buildings.

“When are we going to fix up the state’s employees?” Washington asked. “When are we going to do that?”

‘Going to get worse’

Low pay isn’t the only issue facing state government.

Heavy workloads also hurt recruitment efforts.

Total state government full-time positions – including those paid for with federal money, fines and fees – peaked in 1995-96, when South Carolina had 3.8 million residents.

Since then, lawmakers have cut 10,000, mostly state-funded, jobs. Meanwhile, state government is serving more than 1 million additional residents.

“We kept slashing and we kept slashing,” said state Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, who partially blames the most conservative, anti-government faction of the GOP, which controls the Legislature.

“The whole tea party climate, in which government was bad” emerged, Jackson said. “Government employees felt that.”

Now, after state job cuts, the remaining state employees are working even harder, doing other people’s jobs on top of their jobs, Jackson said.

That produces a toll, says the Employees Association’s Washington.

Children have died in recent years under the watch of underpaid, overworked Social Services case workers, for example, he said.

And, Washington added, “It’s going to get worse.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

Help wanted: Vacancies in SC government

The 10 largest S.C. state agencies based on employees, listed by the highest percentage of job vacancies:

1. Corrections: 21 percent of jobs vacant

2. Disabilities and Special Needs: 16 percent vacant

3. Mental Health: 15 percent vacant

4. Public Safety: 15 percent vacant

5. Health and Environmental Control: 14 percent vacant

6. Vocational Rehabilitation: 14 percent vacant

7. Juvenile Justice: 13 percent vacant

8. Transportation: 12 percent vacant

9. Social Services: 11 percent vacant

10. Motor Vehicles: 7 percent vacant

SOURCE: S.C. Department of Administration

SC teachers leaving the classroom

S.C. teaching positions have a high turnover rate. Nearly 6,500 S.C. teachers didn’t return to the classroom for the 2016-17 school year, according to an annual report on teachers by the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention & Advancement. That is 21 percent more than the 5,352 teachers who left last school year.

Midlands teacher’s starting salaries

New teachers in the Midlands with bachelor’s degrees start out making:

Richland 1: $35,532

Richland 2: $36,094

Lexington-Richland 5: $33,715

Lexington 1: $32,804

Lexington 2: $33,134

Lexington 3: $32,396

Lexington 4: $32,440

SOURCE: S.C. Department of Education

Protecting the state’s children

The S.C. Department of Social Services has been under scrutiny after children died while under the agency’s supervision. The state has attempted to address high turnover rates and low pay at the agency. Still, 11 percent of the agency’s jobs are vacant, in part because of low pay. A look at starting salaries in the child welfare division of Social Services:

▪  Caseworker supervisors: $37,763

▪  Caseworkers: $33,154 - $36,311

▪  Caseworker assistants: $23,291

▪  Administrative positions: $22,182

SOURCE: S.C. Department of Social Services

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