State officials and labor leaders offered contrasting views on a possible wave of state employee retirements this summer, with union officials warning that the already overburdened workforce would be stretched thin, while human resource officers for the State of Connecticut described the expected departures as “relatively manageable.”
At a Dec. 7 meeting of the Task Force to Study the State Workforce and Retiring Employees, Nick Hermes, the chief human resources officer and deputy commissioner of the Department of Administrative Services, reassured legislators and the committee that the number of retirements so far from state agencies overseen by the department were “relatively manageable” and “not surprising.”
“We are observing that, as expected, retirements are greater than usual, but it hasn’t been a windfall,” said Hermes. “At least at this point, we do not view it as an emergency.”
Hermes said his department oversees about 30,000 of the approximately 50,000 state employees, a number that has held steady since about 2015. From July 1 until Nov. 1, 2021, Hermes said his department counted 689 retirements. An additional 790 employees filed paperwork with the intent to retire between Dec. 1, 2021 and July 1, 2022.
At the Jan. 4 meeting of the task force, Brian Hill, a human resources director for the Judicial Branch, which employs approximately 3,000 employees outside of the purview of Department of Administrative Services, supported Hermes’ assessment, saying that his department was experiencing a “pretty steady level of retirements.”
Hill said the Judicial Branch estimated in 2017 that 1,800 workers – or 46 percent of the Judicial Branch workforce – would be eligible for retirement in 2022. By October of 2020, he said, more than half those workers had already retired. He also said that 350 additional workers had either retired or submitted their intent to do so since March 2021, with an additional 650 workers still eligible for retirement.
“We didn’t see everybody waiting until the last moment,” said Hill.
But in a meeting on Tuesday, labor officials warned the task force that retirements would exacerbate an already strained workforce.
Amanda Tower, a correction officer at MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institute in Suffield and steward for the AFSCME Local 391, which is one of three correction officers’ unions, said that the Department of Correction was already understaffed by about 400 people, with an additional 400 workers poised to retire in July.
“Hundreds of staff are out on leave because they tested positive for coronavirus. Many of us are working mandatory double shifts several times a week. And we are burnt out,” said Tower, who added that this was having a negative effect on the mental health of workers in the department.
Ana Lindley, a court interpreter for the Judicial Branch and the regional vice president of the union for judicial employees, said that the number of full and part-time Spanish-language court interpreters had decreased from 35 to 20 over the last 10 years, despite an increase in the state’s Spanish-speaking population.
Lindley said that the lack of interpreters has meant that they have had to rely on their client’s family members to interpret during preliminary interviews. Sometimes, she said, cases are continued several times because there are no interpreters available.
Christine Jean-Louis, a state assistant attorney general and president of the union for assistant attorney generals, said that of the roughly 200 lawyers employed by her agency, 50 are eligible to retire and an additional 30 can retire early with a penalty.
“Having 10 to 15 lawyers leave in any given year is already a lot, let alone the anticipation of 50 lawyers,” said Jean-Louis, who pointed out that while the overall retirements may not appear to be alarming, certain agencies might be struggling more than others.
“Whether it is a concern or not is going to be dependent on the agency you are looking at,” she said, “The devil is going to be in the details here.”
Others offered suggestions for what could make the transition smoother.
Tara Keaton, a captain at the Department of Correction and executive vice president for the supervisor’s union at the Department of Correction, suggested that the department offer incentives to workers who were eligible for retirement, but willing to stay beyond the 2022 deadline, given that the department was already struggling with understaffing.
“We cannot hire enough staff to replace the ones that are leaving,” said Keaton.
Jean-Louis said it was important to allow overlap when hiring new assistant attorney generals, since it could take weeks to a few months for a new hire to be able to handle cases on his or her own.
State Rep. Harry Arora, R-Greenwich, said it was important that the state adequately planned for job transitions, which he said could cause stress in the workplace if positions were not being filled or it took time for new people to take on responsibilities.
“That’s an addressable problem, I think that’s very important,” he said.
Arora also said it was important that the state was hiring “properly and aggressively” to make sure the retirement positions were being filled.
At the December meeting, Hermes reported that the Department of Administrative Services was hiring at a rapid pace.. He said that normally the department hires 4,000 to about 6,500 employees in a year, but that the department had filled just over 2,300 positions between July and November 2021. He said the department’s goal was to hire an additional 4,700 employees by June 2022.
Asked about succession planning for job turnovers, Hermes assured task force members that state agencies had been working together to prepare for the retirements in 2022.
“In terms of development opportunities, opportunities to transfer knowledge, opportunities to reorganize, to shoulder anticipated absences or holes … all of those things I have personally witnessed agencies do,” said Hermes.
State Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, said she was concerned about the differences in the reports that the unions and the Department of Administrative Services gave to the task force. She referenced Jean-Louis’ words about the need to look at vacancies on a unit or departmental basis.
“Listening to the previous reports from DAS, it sounds like – everything’s on track, we’re okay … and maybe from 1,000 feet, that is correct or it seems correct, but I think that your point that this impacts the units and the departments in very different ways was extremely important,” she said.
Arora said the task force needed to take into account the perspectives of both management and the workers as they considered what to do.
“I think that’s a very healthy discussion which we heard, and I think we need to make sure that we take all points of view on that to find the right solution,” he said.