Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – As New Mexico confronts a new public health flashpoint, some of the state agencies on the front lines have seen their ranks dwindle.
The Department of Health’s Epidemiology and Response Division, for instance, now has nearly as many empty positions as it does employees, according to DOH data.
Due to a mix of fatigue, stress, pay levels that lag behind the private sector and other factors, the division had 165 employees and 151 unfilled positions as of last week – or roughly a 48% vacancy rate.
In addition, the state has lost two chief epidemiologists since 2020, forcing other agency officials to temporarily fill the role.
During a legislative hearing last week, Health Department acting Secretary David Scrase said the agency was working to address the situation.
“Our top priority is really to rebuild our workforce,” said Scrase, who added a recent departmentwide survey showed about 70% of employees had experienced anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He also said many DOH employees were forced to frequently work weekends and holidays during the pandemic, but said New Mexico isn’t the only state dealing with such issues.
“There’s a widespread migration out of public epidemiology into the private sector,” Scrase said.
However, the Department of Health isn’t unique when it comes to having a high vacancy rate.
Some top-ranking state legislators say they’re concerned about vacancy rates across state government as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham prepares to embark on her second term after winning reelection last month.
“That is the no. 1 issue affecting state government right now,” said Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, the vice chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee.
He said a cumbersome state hiring process with an average of 72 days to fill open positions and workforce changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have combined to leave some state agencies scrambling to hire – and retain – employees.
“We’ve got to be competitive in our market,” Muñoz told the Journal. “I don’t know any attorney who wants to work for $60,000 (a year).”
Statewide, there was a 24.3% average vacancy rate for rank-and-file positions across state government as of September, according to State Personnel Office data.
For its part, the Department of Health currently has a 30% vacancy rate and is understaffed in many key positions, including computer technicians and human resources specialists, Scrase said.
To remedy the situation, he said the department is using advertising and rapid-hire events to target hard-to-fill positions. It’s also seeking an additional $14 million from the Legislature to recruit and retain new workers, as Scrase said current pay rates for some positions are equivalent to fast-food restaurants.
For the time being, however, employees in the Epidemiology and Response Division are struggling to keep the division running, even as state hospitals report a surge of young patients with different viruses, including the Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV.
The Department of Health recently announced it would stop providing weekly COVID-19 hospitalization, mortality and geographic trend reports on a weekly basis, and instead would issue such reports once every two weeks.
Raises or remote?
The struggle to reduce vacancy rates across state government comes as Lujan Grisham’s administration is poised to rescind a telework policy negotiated during the pandemic.
The remote work policy, which was negotiated by labor union leaders and administration officials in June 2021, allows state workers to do their jobs remotely from home occasionally or entirely, depending on their duties.
Some union leaders predict the state government vacancy rate could rise to 30% – if not higher – if the remote work option is rescinded.
But the Lujan Grisham administration has insisted it is trying to maintain a productive and flexible workforce while also addressing the needs of state residents.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Lujan Grisham is committed to making state government a “rewarding workplace,” citing recent pay increases for state workers and competitive benefits packages.
“The governor fully recognizes that current state employee vacancy rates are not acceptable, and the administration is committed to ensuring that both employees and constituents have the staffing support they need,” Sackett told the Journal.
She also said the Democratic governor would push during the upcoming 60-day legislative session for additional wage increases to help recruit and retain more state employees.
New revenue estimates unveiled last week project state lawmakers will have nearly $12 billion in revenue to spend during the budget year that starts in July 2023 – or about $3.6 billion above current spending levels.
Some lawmakers aren’t convinced that pay raises alone will be enough to solve the state’s vacancy rate issues.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, said some state agencies have not been able to fully utilize funding approved in previous years that was targeted at hard-to-fill positions, such as social workers.
“What’s disconcerting is to have Cabinet secretaries ask for more money for positions when they already have a high funded vacancy rate,” Lundstrom said in an interview.
Lundstrom, who is the LFC’s chairwoman, also said that while she supports an in-person work requirement for state employees whose job duties involve interacting with the public, she said it makes sense to allow other workers in more technical positions to work remotely if they so choose.
Looking ahead, she and other legislators plan to seek authorization for a new study on the state’s salary structure for rank-and-file workers.
Such a study has not been conducted for about 20 years, Lundstrom said, and if funding for it is approved during the upcoming session, it could provide lawmakers and state officials with more information about how to better align pay rates and job positions.
Some state workers say they already feel overworked and under appreciated.
Employees in two state agencies – the Department of Health and the Human Services Department – got emails Tuesday from the State Personnel Office ordering them to return to in-person work starting Jan. 3, an official with the local chapter of the Communications Workers of America union said.
Alan Tway, the secretary of the CWA Local 7076 union, said many employees are angry and questioned whether the Lujan Grisham administration has the authority to unilaterally rescind the telework policy.
“Even with three years of multi-billion dollar new revenues, the governor offers no recognition that fewer and fewer employees have been carrying more and more of the workload,” Tway said in a letter to the Journal.