Jobs Sit Empty in the Public Sector, So Unions Pitch In to Recruit

The State of Minnesota, like nearly every public-sector employer across the country, is in a hiring crunch.

Not just for any job, though. The desk jobs that can be done remotely, with flexible schedules? Applicants for those positions are relatively abundant. It’s the nurses, groundskeepers, plumbers, social workers and prison guards — those who are on site, sometimes at odd hours — that the state really can’t find.

“It’s terrifying, if I’m being honest,” said Mitchell Kuhne, a sergeant with the Department of Corrections staffing a table at a state jobs fair in Minneapolis this week. “People just don’t know about the opportunities that exist. It’s a great work force, it’s a great field to be in, but it’s a really intimidating thing that isn’t portrayed accurately in the movies and media.”

Understaffing requires employees to pick up many hours of mandatory overtime, Mr. Kuhne said. The additional income can be welcome, but also makes home life difficult for new recruits, and many quit within a few weeks. So his union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is playing an unusual role — helping their bosses recruit workers.

It’s a nationwide quandary. While private-sector employment fully regained its prepandemic level a year ago — and now sits 3 percent above it — state and local governments remain about 1 percent below the 20 million people they had on staff in February 2020. The job-opening rate for public-sector positions is below that of private businesses, but hasn’t come down as much from the highs of 2022.

In historical perspective, it could be worse: State and local government employment had only barely recovered from a long slide after the 2007-9 recession, which left many public services underpowered as states and cities lacked the funding to return to full strength.

This time, the problem is different. Tax collections recovered more quickly than expected, and the federal government helped with transfers of cash to local jurisdictions to offset the effects of the Covid-19 crisis. That helped many governments award temporary pay increases to retain key personnel, and hire others into departments that had been cut to the bone, such as public health.

But officials then faced a new twist. Wages in the private sector were growing faster than they had in decades, drawing people away from government jobs that had, for some, become too stressful. Civil servants also tend to be older than other workers, and more of them retired early rather than put up with mounting strain. As federal relief funds peter out, governments face difficult questions about how to maintain competitive pay.

Public needs, however, have only increased. Minnesota, along with recovering from a hiring freeze early in the pandemic, has passed larger budgets and new laws — regulating cannabis sales, for example — that have added hundreds of positions across several agencies. At the same time, the federal infrastructure bill is supercharging demand for people to manage construction projects.

That’s a victory for labor unions, which typically push for more hiring, higher wages and better benefits. But it doesn’t help them much if positions stay empty. A survey of local government human resource officers, released in June by the nonprofit research organization Mission Square, found that more than half the respondents had to reopen recruitment processes very often or frequently for lack of enough applications. In Minnesota, the vacancy rate for state government jobs rose to 11.5 percent in the 2023 fiscal year from 7.5 percent in 2019.

That’s why the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, known as AFSCME, decided it needed to pitch in on a function usually reserved for human resources departments: getting people in the door. The union has started a national campaign to generate buzz around frontline positions, while locals are contacting community organizations and even families of union members to spotlight opportunities.

“Our employers are feeling the heat,” said Lee Saunders, the union’s president. “They understand that services are not being provided at the level that they should be provided. It’s a team effort as far as bringing fresh blood into the public service.”

That was the point of the hiring fair in Minneapolis. Seventy-five job seekers filtered through, often looking for more stable or higher-paying positions than the ones they held, usually referred by a friend or relative in the union.

Cassandra Crawford spoke to someone at nearly every table, looking for something better paid and more active than her remote job in health care administration. “The older you get, the more you want to move your body,” she said. Speaking with recruiters in person was also more encouraging than sending her résumé to an automated portal. “I think they might remember me,” she said, laughing.

Joel Shanight, 43, a disabled Army veteran and Peace Corps volunteer with experience in hostile environments, expressed confidence that he had landed a job doing roadway assistance on state highways. After doing unsatisfying accounting work in the private sector, he was glad to have learned about positions that could allow him to help people again.

“I can’t find that in the corporate world,” Mr. Shanight said. “There’s no compassion anymore.”

Also present were high-level officials from the state government, including Jamie Long, the House majority leader, who praised the union for helping out. Other government unions — like the American Federation of Teachers, which represents a field that saw an exodus during the pandemic — also have programs to try to bring more people into the classroom.

AFSCME plans to create a national training and development center that will maintain a database of available union-represented jobs and centralize apprenticeship programs to build the next generation of public servants.

Joseph McCartin, the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, said he hadn’t seen anything similar since World War II, when unions joined the federal government to fill positions essential to the military effort. Unions can be trusted messengers in communities, he said, and have a better understanding of what job seekers are looking for than employers do.

A tour bus used for recruitment by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a trade union of public employees, at the hiring fair in Minneapolis this week.Credit…Tim Gruber for The New York Times

“I think it’s an extraordinary development,” Dr. McCartin said. “It’s a great advantage when you have a partner that’s going to be working with you to try to help you solve this problem.”

Some states that limit collective bargaining in the public sector think that not having to deal with labor organizations allows them to adapt compensation more quickly in response to staffing needs. But they still deal with their share of difficulty in hiring.

Take Idaho, whose population boomed during the pandemic. By the 2022 fiscal year, the state was facing vacancy rates as high as 20 percent at the Department of Corrections and 15 percent in the Department of Health and Welfare. A benchmarking analysis found that state jobs paid 24.6 percent less than the private sector for comparable positions, and annual turnover had reached 21.8 percent.

The state ramped up recruiting, eased formal education requirements for some positions and brought on contractors to fill labor gaps, which is expensive. Those moves didn’t solve the problem, especially for less attractive shifts at hospitals, prisons and veterans’ homes, which couldn’t fill available beds because of understaffing.

So in early 2023, Gov. Brad Little, a conservative Republican, asked for an 8.5 percent across-the-board pay increase for state workers over two years, with another 6 percent for those in public safety. Next year the governor plans to seek the same bump for workers in health care, information technology and engineering.

The Legislature generally went along with those recommendations, with a few tweaks. But given the continuing constraints, Lori Wolff, head of the Division of Human Resources, said she was looking for ways to provide services with fewer people, especially for tasks like enrolling people in state benefits.

“There’s a lot of jobs that we’re going to have to start looking at technology to solve,” Ms. Wolff said.

The state’s 199 municipalities have an even tougher time increasing pay and adopting automated services. The state has limited their ability to raise revenue through property taxes, so it has been more difficult to compete. Skyrocketing housing costs are compounding that problem, fueled by high-income remote workers who moved out of bigger cities during the pandemic.

Kelley Packer, director of the Association of Idaho Cities, said she had recently spoken with a member whose public works director had been forced to live in his car.

“It’s a really interesting balancing act to allow for the growth to happen, and meet the needs of the housing crisis that we’re in, and still be able to provide services with a restricted property tax system,” Ms. Packer said.

Of course, it’s not all about salary. Rivka Liss-Levinson, research director with Mission Square, said people usually listed three primary motivations to work for governments: job security, job satisfaction and robust retirement benefits. Conveying the value of comparatively generous health care coverage and pensions, plus the public service mission, is still the basic strategy.

“Those things haven’t really changed over time,” Dr. Liss-Levinson said. “States and localities that are able to address these needs and concerns are the ones that are going to thrive when it comes to recruitment and retention.”

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