Lamont says CT state worker retirement ‘tsunami’ was milder than feared
State government agencies are emerging from the spring surge in employee retirements well-positioned to preserve vital services, Gov. Ned Lamont and other administration officials announced Wednesday.
“The much-discussed silver tsunami is more like a summer storm,” Lamont said during a mid-morning press conference at the state Bureau of Information Technology offices.
Competitive salaries and bonuses, more strategic recruiting efforts and an increased reliance on digital platforms and hybrid working conditions have helped agencies weather the challenges of more than 4,000 retirements, administration officials said.
The administration has hired more than 6,000 people this fiscal year, which ends Thursday. That’s about 1,000 more than the state has averaged in recent years, said Nicholas Hermes, the state’s chief human services director.
The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which represents most bargaining units in state government, sees things differently.
“The exodus has only exacerbated the destruction of the vital state services that all working people across Connecticut depend on, in particular black and brown, women, and immigrant workers,” the coalition wrote in a statement.
Union officials have repeatedly taken a different perspective than the governor, arguing that most state agencies faced a staffing crisis even before the spring surge in retirements began.
The comptroller’s office warned more than two years ago that roughly one-quarter of the state’s aging workforce, more than 10,000 employees, could be eligible to retire by July 1, 2022 — though it never predicted that many workers actually would step down.
The July 1, 2022 date is significant because a 2017 concessions package between the state and its employee unions agreed to tighten pension benefits for workers who retire after that point.
A new system for making cost-of-living adjustments to pensions approved post-July 1 is tied to the Consumer Price Index.
And the first COLA payment for retirees won’t come until 30 months after retirement. Under the outgoing system, that payment comes within the first nine to 15 months.
The comptroller’s office reported Wednesday morning that 3,090 state employees had retired between Jan. 1 and June 1 and that another 1,361 have filed their written intentions to retire by July 1.
In a typical year, the state sees 2,000 to 2,500 retirements.
And while the spring retirement surge has created challenges, Hermes said, “Our workforce numbers are looking fantastic.”
Hermes, who is deputy commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, said employment in the Executive Branch — excluding public colleges and universities — is slightly more than 31,000, the highest mark since 2016.
Connecticut also has become much more strategic in its hiring, targeting talent with technological skills to help as government transfers more services online and relies more heavily on data analysis.
“We’re really excited for the future,” he said.
Hermes added that there are some “hot spots” in state government. Agencies particularly need licensed health care and engineering professionals and information technology specialists. These are “incredibly challenging careers to recruit and, even more specifically, to retain,” he said.
But unions counter the state still needs to move much faster to fill vacancies.
Under Lamont’s predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the Executive Branch workforce shrank almost 10% between 2011 and 2018.
Malloy had few options other than to reduce staffing. Often faced with large projected budget deficits — and trying to avoid tax hikes and program cuts whenever possible — lawmakers frequently ordered Malloy to find huge savings after the fiscal year had already begun and the budget was in force. That typically is achieved, in part, by freezing jobs as they become vacant.
Unions say hiring hasn’t improved sufficiently since Lamont took office in January 2019.
Collin Provost, correctional officer and president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees local representing more than 1,800 prison guards, said the system was down about 500 front-line staffers — before June retirements are considered.
“This alarmingly low level of staffing puts correctional officers at risk every day,” Provost said. “We’re currently on track for a record number of assaults on staff. The overtime we have been ordered into is not only unsustainable, but adding more stress on the staff we have.”
Rob Baril, president of SEIU 1199NE, said about 1,000 state jobs tied to mental health and addiction services need to be filled.
“Frontline staff members providing health care, mental health, and addiction services know that Connecticut is facing dangerously low employee shortages that have shut down services to the most vulnerable,” Baril said.
“People seeking treatment for addiction and children needing psychiatric services have been turned away from lifesaving care because the state has failed to hire enough health care workers to provide services,” said Baril. “Some misguided politicians see the much-anticipated ‘silver tsunami’ wave of retirements as a golden opportunity to cut state services, divesting from the programs that support Black, Brown, API [Asian/Pacific Islander,] and white working-class communities.”
According to data obtained by the CT Mirror from the state Office of Policy and Management in late April, all Executive Branch agencies — excluding public colleges and universities — had collectively filled 25,700 of the 30,080 positions authorized for them in the state budget.
The 17% vacancy rate is almost double where it stood two years ago, when 9.4% of jobs were empty.
Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Michelle Gilman said the state also has mitigated the potential “silver tsunami” by offering competitive wages and bonuses, along with flexible working conditions such as telecommuting that are appealing to workers amid the coronavirus pandemic.
This past spring, the governor negotiated, and the legislature ratified, new four-year wage contracts with bargaining units representing the bulk of the state’s workforce.
The contracts include 2.5% annual cost-of-living hikes, step increases — adding another 2 or 2.5 percentage points to the pay of all but the most senior workers — and $3,500 in bonuses spread across this spring and summer.
“All of our agencies continue to meet with our unions' partners to look at how we can be strategic in retaining and hiring new employees," Gilman said. "Those conversations continue, and they will continue over the coming months and the coming years.”
While economists are worried the nation’s economy is headed toward a recession, Lamont said Connecticut is well-prepared to ensure that a downturn will not take a toll on the state’s workforce.
"I think you’re going to see the quality of our services keep going,” the governor said.
The state’s emergency budget reserve is at its legal maximum, equal to 15% of annual operating costs. In the new fiscal year that begins July 1, that represents about $3.3 billion.
Connecticut also is poised to make an unprecedented $3.6 billion supplemental payment against its long-term pension debt. State officials say this and $1.7 billion in other supplemental payments made over the previous two years will help drive down required pension contributions in future budgets, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in additional resources for other programs.
“We’re not going to be slashing services,” Lamont said, “We’re not going to be laying people off.”