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State frets over graying labor force

State House Bureau

July 16. 2017 12:29AM

Rich Gulla is president of the State Employees Association (SEA), which represents the majority of state government workers not employed in education.

CONCORD - Like many large employers, the state is facing a severe labor shortage in key departments with no relief in sight, as the current contracts with state employees expired on June 30.

Vacancy rates and turnover are high, and the situation is only likely to get worse as 30 to 40 percent of state employees, with an average age of 51, are eligible to retire in five years.

Negotiations are currently at an impasse, with both sides agreeing to fact-finding that they hope will lead to a deal between the state and the five unions that represent the 13,300 employees, not including those who work for the university or community college systems.

The state employees are prohibited by law from striking, and Gov. Chris Sununu says if a deal can't be reached, he's OK with allowing the current contract provisions to remain in effect.

"At some point we need to just defer back to the previous contract," said Sununu in a recent interview. "At some point we need to move on. We can't just be held in stalled negotiations forever."

Keeping pay levels and contract terms as they currently stand means continued erosion in the state workforce, with effects on everyone who relies on state services, according to Rich Gulla, president of the State Employees Association (SEA), which represents the majority of state government workers not employed in education.

"We can't help fix problems with state staffing if the state refuses to address the wage inequalities with the private sector," said Gulla. "From IT to environmental services, highly skilled positions are vastly underpaid compared to the private sector."

At one time, Gulla admits, people took jobs with the state at rates of pay lower than the private sector for the more generous benefit package. But that dynamic no longer works in the state's favor, he said, claiming that the Legislature has consistently scaled back on those benefits over the years, with more cutbacks anticipated.

That, combined with a widespread labor shortage in skilled and unskilled positions, has put the state in a vulnerable position, according to its labor unions.

"I'm going to go back to the governor's budget address, when he said we have a serious workforce issue," said Gulla. "When you don't pay any more money, it should not come as a surprise to any of us who believe in capitalism that you are going to have serious shortages. Those are his words."

The state is particularly hard hit by the nursing shortage. The vacancy rate among nurses in the state prison system was around 20 percent in 2016, and higher than that at New Hampshire Hospital, the state psychiatric facility.

The New Hampshire Veterans Home, which had a 6 percent vacancy rate for nursing positions in 2015, saw that rate more than double to 15 percent in 2016, according to analysis provided by the State Employees Association. Around 15 percent of all prison positions are unfilled.

The problem isn't limited to highly skilled positions. Gulla says the Department of Transportation is having trouble hiring highway maintenance workers who plow or repair roads. "Jobs go unfilled for months," he said. "People aren't taking them because they are offered much more in wages at other places."

Sununu and his negotiating team have argued that state employees have seen wages go up by 10 percent from 2013 to 2017, and that prison guards were offered a 10 percent raise, which was rejected.

"He was offering that 10 percent, but changing classification of jobs, so it was going to be more like a 1 percent raise when all was said and done," according to Gulla.

SEA membership has been fairly constant in the past decade, with 8,545 members in 2008, compared with 8,628 in 2017. The remainder of state employees are represented by the New England Police Benevolent Association, New Hampshire Troopers Association and the Teamsters.

Using staffing services

Some state agencies, particularly Health and Human Services, have taken up the practice of using staffing agencies to fill essential positions. When DHHS wanted to launch a 24/7 child abuse hotline or staff a new 10-bed unit at New Hampshire Hospital, it had to turn to independent staffing agencies.

Not only are such arrangements costly, but they are inefficient, Gulla said. "You don't have the ownership or buy-in that you have with a permanent employee who's dedicated to public service. And I don't think in the long run that it's going to save the state any money because they are going to be stuck in that circle of hiring, training, hiring, training."

Sununu admits there is a problem, but says New Hampshire is not unique.

"The workforce in the private sector is mimicked in the public sector. We have a hard time recruiting and we are not the only state. Most states, especially in the New England region, are having a real challenge recruiting good people into government jobs," he said.

"It isn't just about the pay. A lot of things come into play, but we are not in a different boat than any other state. So we have to keep reviewing our processes, looking at what it takes to attract good people, working with Employment Services and Administrative Services, and looking at the variables to get the best workforce that we can."

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