JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — Even after the largest pay raise in state history, vacancies are still troubling Missouri state agencies.
At one point this year, there were 7,000 vacancies across state government, forcing many departments to be stretched thin and pay overtime. While some agencies are bouncing back, the state could soon be offering bonuses.
“We have to be competitive; we have to look at those types of incentives,” executive director for the Active and Retired Missouri State Employees organization Sue Cox said.
For the second year in a row, lawmakers were tasked with increasing pay for state workers. Since 2021, the state has increased pay by nearly 16%. This year, besides approving the 8.7% cost of living adjustment for state workers, the General Assembly also approved an increase in the shift differential to $2 an hour for congregate care employees who work overnight.
“They were long overdue, but I think we have to keep pace with the private sector,” Cox said. “I think COVID was a little but of a knock on the door, and it said hey state government, if we want to keep the doors open and continue serving the public, we’re going to have to make some changes.
Cox retired after more than 30 years of service for the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT). The Active and Retired Missouri State Employees (ARMSE) organization is a volunteer bipartisan group made up of members from across the state.
“I think it’s costly to Missouri taxpayers to have vacancies and substantial turnover,” Cox said.
Last month, MoDOT Director Patrick McKenna said things are looking up for the department after struggling with a 20% turnover rate.
“The last four months, we’ve actually had more people come into employment at MoDOT than we have lost and that’s probably the first time in 15 years,” McKenna said in October.
Within the last month, MoDOT has hired 100 new people. At one point, the state’s transportation department was short 1,000 employees.
“I brought our team in and said, ‘On a very short period of time, I want to take 10 weeks down to one,'” McKenna said. “I want people on the payroll in one year.”
He said the team tried it out last month at hiring events in Kansas City, St. Louis and in Jefferson City. Instead of waiting, resource agencies provided screenings that day, allowing managers to offer jobs on-site.
McKenna said he also credits the 8.7% pay raise from lawmakers earlier this year as part of the solution.
“I’m not suggesting we have to compete with the private sector, but we have to be able to compete in the public sector space, and we really weren’t doing that,” McKenna said. “We were doing a bad job of that; in fact, we were 30% to 40% below that level.”
Over in the Missouri Department of Mental Health (DMH), Director Valerie Huhn said the agency is also moving in the right direction with only 500 current vacant positions.
“I have a wait list for services right now and it’s not because I don’t have the funding to support those services, it’s because I don’t have the workforce to deliver those services,” Huhn said.
According to DMH, there are 658 individuals in the Division of Developmental Disabilities waiting to access residential services. Of those 658 individuals, 28 are waiting in hospitals.
Huhn also credits the 8.7% pay raise. Compared to last year at this time, the department has made big strides in hiring. Huhn told the House Subcommittee on Appropriations for Health, Mental Health and Social Services in September 2022, the department had more than 1,700 vacancies. Currently, she said the DMH is short roughly 500 employees, causing many facilities to hire temporary workers.
“We’re still using contracted staff,” Huhn said. “It’s not going down as quickly as we would like it to go down, and it predominately is in those, what we would consider our health care field, so it’s our licensed clinical social workers, our psychiatrists and psychologists.”
There are currently 259 individuals waiting in county jails for a bed to open up at a mental health hospital. Earlier this year, the General Assembly approved a new “jail-based competency restoration” program, allowing the department to treat arrested people while incarcerated or on an outpatient basis if the person can safely be released.
“I don’t think as a state we’re going to get the number of people we need to do all these services,” Huhn said. “We’ve got to start thinking creatively.”
The governor’s administration is currently looking at possible incentives starting next year. One idea is to give state workers within certain agencies anywhere from $250 to $500 for successfully referring a new employee to the state workforce. Gov. Mike Parson declined to comment on the possibility of an incentive.
The state has been hosting several career recruitment events across Missouri in hopes of bringing more people on board, including a job fair this upcoming Thursday, Nov. 9 from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m. at the Marriott West in St. Louis County.