State job losses keep adding up

RECESSION: Work force still suffering from down economy, budget shortfall

January 10, 2011 

Washington's state government work force has been on the Great Recession diet plan for the past two years, but the slimming is far from over.

Layoffs and attrition since the global financial crisis of 2008, which forced the state to cut $5 billion in spending, have shrunk the number of workers on Washington’s state agency and college payrolls to its lowest level in several years. The total number of full-time jobs in state agencies, colleges and universities is down by about 5,890 since late 2008, according to the Office of Financial Management.

By a different measure, the number of jobs in general-government agencies, the judiciary and Legislature already is the lowest in four years – dipping to 63,874 in November compared with 65,516 in 2006, just before an economic recovery fueled large increases in state spending and hiring during 2007-08.

“It doesn’t surprise me. We’ve been making cuts every year for the last several years,” state Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County, said last week of the job numbers reported by the state Department of Personnel. “There are a lot of people who somehow think state government has not shrunk. It has. … It grew and now it’s shrinking. A lot of agencies are talking about being back at the level they were years ago.”

The reductions vary by sector of government – and area of the state. The head count of state workers in the Olympia area is actually higher than in 2006, while statewide the head counts are down by several thousand since July 2006 – and are almost as low as the previous recessionary low of 63,860 in 2003.

Pierce County has seen the largest decline in state employment among the five counties with the most state employees – Thurston, King, Pierce, Spokane and Snohomish.

In most recessions, its seat-of-government status has buffered the Olympia area from serious job cuts. The county has more than one-third of the state’s general-government, legislative and judicial jobs.

But this time, head counts show that the number of Thurston County workers in those categories shrank by 4.9 percent – to 22,227 full- and part-time positions from a high of 23,373 in June 2008. That is a loss of about 1,146 jobs from the peak.

That compares with a statewide reduction of about 4.3 percent in the same period for state agencies, the Legislature and judicial branch. The same sectors had shrunk to 63,874 employees early last fall, according to the Personnel data.

Overall, the cuts have put government closer to its size in 2006, Fraser said.

But even those levels of employment aren’t expected to last long. Lawmakers returning to Olympia today for a 105-day session must close about $5 billion in state budget shortfalls expected through mid-2013.

And at a time the private sector has struggled to add jobs, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed cutting an additional 1,000 full-time-equivalent positions statewide from the general-government and higher education sectors over the next 21/2 years, according to the most recent analysis of her budget proposals by the Office of Financial Management. Those job losses are smaller than Gregoire earlier predicted.

OFM has predicted an additional 1,600 job losses in the K-12 public school system if her budget proposals are adopted.

“We have not reached the bottom of state government employment numbers. We are going to have to take further reductions in the remainder of this biennium and next biennium before we see a turnaround,” Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County said.

Alexander predicted that the Thurston County state-government work force would shrink below the head count of 21,891 measured in July 2006, which is still about 1 in 5 jobs countywide. The county’s lowest figure for the past decade was 21,300 in 2001.

“I realize that state government employees make up a big share of a local economy. As those jobs are lost, that’s essentially going to hold our economy down,” he said. “I’m hopeful that to counter that we’ll have an increase in private jobs and restoration of the housing industry. … But Thurston County has traditionally lagged the state in terms of recovery.”

The see-saw job situation has been visible in downtown Olympia and greater Thurston County, which both depend on state government for one-fifth or more of their jobs base.

Connie Lorenz, executive director of the Olympia Downtown Association, said many businesses have weathered the recent downturn and some are reporting stronger business in 2010. But the ongoing efforts to consolidate or relocate agencies to new buildings are causing concerns in some commercial districts.

At Wagner’s European Bakery & Café, Todd Wagner said the twin effects of recession and state-office relocations have just made it harder to sustain profits.

“All those things have definitely come together at a bad time,” he said.

But he’s not given up on the economy and said his family-owned business recently took over operation of a coffee shop inside the state Liquor Control Board’s headquarters on Pacific Avenue on Olympia’s east side. Wagner’s also plans to open a third business later this year “to broaden our revenue stream,” he said.

Some local businesses have failed during the hard times, said Bonaventure shoe store owner Jeanne Carras. But Carras said she is hearing more from fellow merchants whose 2010 sales exceeded those in 2008 and 2009. A key to her success, she said, was tightening her financial belt.

“At my business, I had the best year I ever had last year. I think I am an anomaly,” Carras said.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

JOBS: State workers by the numbers

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