California government hiring slowed in 2011

The Sacramento BeeApril 9, 2012 

California state government hired 25 percent fewer employees last year, according to new payroll figures, although departments still added thousands of workers while squeezing their budgets during the economic downturn.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown imposed a hiring freeze shortly after entering office last year, but allowed exemptions under certain conditions. The governor lifted the freeze as departments came up with alternative ways to cut their budgets.

Controller's records analyzed by The Bee show the state hired 8,582 new workers in 2011, down from 11,407 during 2010, GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's last year in office. During the 14 months ending in February that Brown has been in office, the state hired 10,621 employees.

About half of the first-timers to state civil service took full-time work. The rest filled lower-paying part-time, seasonal or temporary jobs without benefits.

The downturn in hiring is another sign of the state's continued fiscal distress and, along with a flood of boomers entering retirement, has produced a workforce that is about 6 percent smaller than two years ago.

"In some ways you've got to give the governor credit," said Pepperdine University political scientist Michael Shires. "He's proposed budget cuts and followed through with them."

But given the state's unrelenting budget crisis, now pegged at $9.2 billion through fiscal 2012-13, "it's reasonable to ask whether those (hiring) numbers should have been even more severe," Shires said.

In the first 14 months of Brown's administration, the state's median starting base pay was $2,280 per month, or $27,360 per year.

The state hired 295 individuals with a starting base pay of $100,000 per year: lawyers, doctors, psychiatrists and a smattering of gubernatorial appointees to various boards and commissions.

A month after taking office last year – and facing an even larger 2011-12 budget hole – Brown told departments with employees under his authority to stop hiring without a literal sign-off from his office. (The order didn't apply to the Legislature, the judicial branch or the state university systems, which control their own employees. Their numbers are not included in the data.)

For several months after the Feb. 15, 2010 order, officials from across the state's bureaucracy filled out request forms to hire for thousands of jobs, from office assistants to department deputy directors.

Department of Finance analysts reviewed the hiring requests and forwarded their up-or-down recommendations to Brown's office, which authorized some and killed others.

The hiring freeze order also contained an incentive, noted Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer: Once a department submitted a plan to hit a prescribed savings target, it could resume hiring without administrative review. "But (the plan) had to pass muster with Finance," Palmer said.

Departments started whittling away at their budgets. Strategies included renegotiating leases, paring back equipment purchases, reducing or completely eliminating employee training, slashing travel budgets and sweeping out vacant positions.

The hiring freeze eventually thawed for roughly 150 state departments that chopped a combined $224 million from their 2011-12 budgets, according to Finance figures. Last week the Brown administration sent a letter to state Controller John Chiang, instructing his office to hold each department to its lower budget targets, officially capping expenses at the reduced levels.

One department, the massive California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, is still under the hiring freeze, Palmer said. The state's penal system is in the midst of a massive downsizing through attrition as courts send more criminal offenders to local jails. Corrections hasn't run a correctional officer cadet academy since last summer.

Palmer said that with the prison realignment shrinking the state's inmate population, it made sense to extend the Corrections hiring freeze.

Still, the state did hire 392 correctional officers, but they went into permanent intermittent jobs, not full-time positions with benefits.

Nearly half the jobs, 48 percent, filled by the state since Brown assumed office have been lower-paying, unbenefited and part-time positions, according to the the state's pay data.

California's Parks and Recreation Department, for example, hired 300 park aides to staff campground toll booths, clean restrooms, pick up trash on hiking trails and perform other tasks during the peak outdoor recreation season.

"These are temporary workers who come in during the busy season and then are gone when we don't need them any more," said Parks spokesman Roy Stearns.

In 2010, the number of new state hires roughly equaled the number of employees who retired. Last year 2,000 more workers drew their first pension checks than the state added to its payrolls. For every new worker who took a job with benefits, two retired.

Brown spokesman Elizabeth Ashford said the lower number of new hires is a "promise made and a promise delivered" by the governor to cut government costs.

Shires, the Pepperdine University professor, said the numbers show that "it's easier to not hire people than it is to lay them off."

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