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High vacancy rates plague New Mexico agencies

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and many legislators have made it clear they want to build up the state government workforce.

But the vacancy rate in New Mexico’s executive branch has stubbornly clung to about 22% even after pay raises and increased recruitment efforts.

Corrections officer Sammy Oroz watches as inmates organize items at the state’s surplus-property bureau in Santa Fe in 2013. For years, the state Corrections Department has had high vacancy rates. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

State agencies are competing with strong demand in the private sector for workers, officials say, especially in southeastern New Mexico, where an oil boom is generating high-paying jobs.

Low pay in some state departments and the reputation of state government itself – after years of belt-tightening – are also factors, officials said.

State Personnel Director Pamela Coleman said she’s optimistic the vacancy rate will fall as the new administration’s priorities take hold. Lujan Grisham took office Jan. 1.

Since then, Coleman said, the state has held rapid-hiring fairs to attract applicants, worked to reduce bureaucratic hurdles and promoted itself as a great place to build a career and serve the public.

“We are looking at every variable,” Coleman said. “Not one by itself is the silver bullet.”

Nonetheless, the vacancy rate in state government is about 22%, or roughly the same as when Lujan Grisham took office.

Overtime, turnover

Persistent trouble with vacancies emerged as a theme in a recent batch of quarterly reports issued by legislative analysts.

The vacancy rate among corrections officers, for example, climbed 3 percentage points to 25% in the most recent fiscal year, even with an 8.5% pay raise, analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee reported.

The turnover rate for employees in child protective services, meanwhile, exceeded 38% in the last fiscal year, or 13 points higher than in 2018, according to LFC analysts.

In July, the state’s revenue-processing division had an incredible 42% vacancy rate.

Connie Derr – executive director for AFSCME Council 18, a union group that represents employees in 14 state departments – said staffing levels are so low in some cases that employees are taking three overtime shifts a week.

“Certainly, with corrections and human services,” Derr said, “there has been tremendous burnout. They’ve had a lot of mandated overtime.”

Sen. John Arthur Smith, a Deming Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, said the state must provide more resources for some departments, including Corrections.

Spending on prisons, he said, isn’t popular politically, but it’s necessary.

“We’ve got huge problems here in the state of New Mexico, and we need to start making responsible decisions,” Smith said in a recent budget hearing. “We’re going to have to make certain corrections officers have a livable wage and reasonable workweek.”

New governor

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, is a former Cabinet secretary and state employee. She said boosting morale and increasing staffing at state agencies would be an early priority as she moved into the Governor’s Office.

Her tone is a shift from that of the previous governor, Republican Susana Martinez, who argued that state government had grown far too quickly and needed to operate more efficiently.

An economic downturn also triggered a budget crisis that damaged New Mexico’s credit rating in 2016 and prompted spending cuts.

The picture is much different now. State revenue has climbed to record levels amid an oil and gas boom in the Permian Basin.

Steps taken

Coleman said the state is taking a variety of steps to attract workers.

One is a cultural shift, highlighted by Lujan Grisham’s belief that “government is a force for good,” Coleman said.

“When you have a leader who says your work matters, we’re here to help – that makes a difference to people in state government,” Coleman said.

Lujan Grisham this year ordered state agencies to create wellness and fitness policies, such as giving workers a certain amount of time to exercise.

She also has required agencies to establish rules for alternative work schedules, which could result in some employees working, say, 10 hours a day for four days rather than the usual five-day workweek.

Coleman said the State Personnel Office is also directing state agencies to review the minimum qualifications when a job opens up. It may no longer make sense, for example, to require a degree in information technology if the applicant has the required skills.

The state is also using more inviting language in job advertisements, Coleman said, to help applicants understand how they’d fit into the overall mission of state government – to serve New Mexicans.

Other efforts include a social media campaign promoting state employees, changes to the jobs website and highlighting the pension and other benefits available to the state workforce.

Altogether, Coleman said, the executive branch has about 17,000 classified employees – a figure that would climb above 20,000 if every vacant position were filled.

Classified employees make up the bulk of the state workforce. They enjoy job protections aimed at insulating them from political pressure.


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