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State agencies across Florida are struggling to fill positions and retain employees

Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris said front-line jobs at the agency are “some of the hardest jobs in state government.”
Department of Children and Families Secretary Shevaun Harris said front-line jobs at the agency are “some of the hardest jobs in state government.”

Amid a national worker shortage, state agencies are struggling to fill vacant positions and retain employees, including those who care for some of Florida’s most vulnerable citizens.

Many employees are leaving state government jobs because they’re overworked and underpaid, according to a presentation Wednesday to a Senate committee.

A flood of better-paying positions in the private sector that have opened up following widespread shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated hiring problems, officials from several state agencies told the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee.

The number of applicants responding to state-government job advertisements dropped by nearly 35% over the past three years, while the number of job postings increased by 7%, Department of Management Services Secretary J. Todd Inman said.

The state is receiving 11.6 applications on average for each job posting, compared to an average of 37 applications per advertisement in September 2020, Inman said.

Meanwhile, searches for employees continue to skyrocket, with advertisements for state jobs jumping by more than 62% over the past six months, according to Inman.

The secretary said his agency, which handles many human-resources issues for the state, is among the departments scrambling to fill vacant posts.

“I know we are trying everything we can, whether it’s going to junior colleges for people with trades. We are recruiting actively on LinkedIn. We’re trying to make referrals within our own people and agencies. But we’re trying to use every tool in our toolbox,” he told the panel.

Florida has the country’s leanest state employee workforce, with a ratio of 85 full-time employees for every 10,000 residents.

But the employee shortage being experienced by businesses throughout the nation is having an outsized impact on state government.

Among the agencies being hit hardest are those that care for the state’s most-dangerous or vulnerable people.

The Agency for Persons with Disabilities has vacancy rates between 20% and 46% at its four facilities in North Florida, Rose Salinas, the agency’s deputy director for budget and planning, told the Senate panel.

The agency has been forced to contract with private companies as it struggles to hire and retain direct-care workers, Salinas said. Wages are the main problem, but job retention and recruitment have become even more challenging as demands on existing employees balloon.

As an example, Salinas said that, before the pandemic, the agency’s Sunland Center in Marianna had 15 vacant positions. As of Friday, the facility had 131 vacancies, she said.

Direct-care employees working for the state make about $14 per hour, but the agency is paying between $47 and $67 an hour to private contractors to fill vacant slots, Salinas said.

“We’re offering the job for $14 an hour and yet we’re paying potentially $65 an hour, so they’re probably making $40, $45 an hour?” committee Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, asked.

Salinas said she did not know how much the contractors are paying employees but that nurse assistants in hospitals generally earn at least $16 per hour.

The Department of Children and Families is experiencing similar challenges, agency Secretary Shevaun Harris told the Senate committee.

Front-line jobs at the agency are “some of the hardest jobs in state government,” she said.

“So it may not be hard to fathom why, coming out of the pandemic as most industries are having recruitment challenges, we’ve seen increased vacancies and turnover and a shortage of qualified or willing candidates for many of our critical class positions,” Harris said.

The pandemic also has increased the workload for DCF employees, Harris explained.

“As you can imagine, declining workforce numbers combined with an increase in workload only exacerbates the turnover rate. I want to assure you that enhancing recruitment and retention strategies is at the forefront of our strategic plan,” she said.

Department of Juvenile Justice Chief of Staff Heather DiGiacomo echoed the experiences of other agency leaders.

“I feel like I could just come up here and say, ‘Ditto,’ right?” she said.

DiGiacomo said her agency has a 68% turnover rate for entry-level positions. Again, higher-paying jobs and increased workloads are among the main reasons employees are exiting, she said.

“Not only are we seeing elevated turnover, we aren’t seeing the same degree of interest in people applying for these positions, either,” she added.

Detention officers at the agency make $14.68 per hour, DiGiacomo noted.

“I mean, I’ve heard of people leaving detention to go work at the car wash across the street. Is that correct?” Brandes asked.

“I would say that is an accurate statement,” DiGiacomo replied.

Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon reiterated hiring struggles at his agency. With more than 18,000 employees, corrections is the largest agency in state government. Dixon said the agency has 5,849 unfilled correctional officer positions, which he called a “significant vacancy rate.”

The secretary also said the main reasons are salaries and working conditions.

“Because of the void in the workforce, so, too, the conditions deteriorated and the amount of overtime to work and the safety aspect has had a significant impact on our agency,” he said.

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