Politics & Government

State hires hundreds despite hiring freeze

A chill is in the air at hiring offices around state government, but it's a stretch to call it a freeze.

Officially, there is a hiring freeze on the books. But state agencies have won exemptions that have opened the door to 1,700 hires since the freeze began in March, a News Tribune analysis found.

Mostly back-office staff such as managers, secretaries and accountants, the approved positions run the full spectrum of government. There are janitors and lobbyists, graphic designers and managers of athletic facilities, an oil spill expert and a horse-racing regulator.

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget office has to sign off on most of the requests. The office has denied fewer than 1 in 13 jobs.

Thousands more workers have been hired because their jobs were never subject to the freeze to begin with. Those are mostly jobs on the front lines: prison guards and park rangers, social workers and nurses, farm inspectors and tax collectors, to name a few.

It’s what happens in a work force of more than 100,000 government jobs, even one that has shrunk in recent years.

Employees resign or retire. Lawmakers dream up new programs that need to be staffed. Administrators reorganize their agencies to cope with smaller budgets and create positions in the process.

It’s why the budget office was against the freeze from the start.

HIRED TO MANAGE FREEZE

Julie Murray of the Office of Financial Management told senators last winter that agencies should be allowed to manage their remaining money as they see fit, once they’ve made the cuts and changes ordered by lawmakers.

It’s fine to hold off on hiring for a few months until there is more budget certainty, as was done in 2009, the budget office says, but in the long term agencies need to fill the jobs lawmakers have budgeted.

“That need, and that exception process, is going to continue to multiply the longer these freezes continue,” Murray warned last winter.

By bipartisan majorities, lawmakers went ahead anyway with the freeze on hiring, contracts, equipment purchases and travel.

To see if Murray’s prediction has come true, you can look at the numbers: 970 requests approved through November, many for multiple jobs. It’s well over twice the pace of the 2009 freeze, when about 180 requests were granted in four months.

Or you can just look at the bookshelf beside the desk of the administrative assistant who works with Murray.

Seven binders, each about six inches thick, burst with requests for exemptions. The assistant, Andrea Duane, is working on an eighth binder.

The paperwork piles up so quickly, officials justified another hiring exemption just to process the forms.

That exemption – one of 39 for the governor and her budget office – allowed OFM to change Duane’s position. In her new job, she spends about half her time processing freeze exemptions.

Murray spends five to six hours a week on them. The office’s legislative director, she is the point person on exemptions, trying to figure out if requested jobs are really needed. “I get all these phone calls: ‘I hear you’re the freeze lady,’” she said.

Before requests reach her desk, the Department of Personnel must review and sign off on them . Even before that, many state agencies have review processes of their own.

In the end, even some exemptions that make it to OFM are denied. But agencies sometimes have another chance to make their case, right away or after circumstances change or more employees leave. OFM ended up reversing at least 18 of its denials.

OFM is dead set against lawmakers renewing the freeze.

“Next biennium, we’re not doing it,” said Marty Brown, the governor’s budget director who signs each form. “If they put it in, we’re not doing it. It is micromanaging to the nth degree.”

The freeze may not be needed “in perpetuity,” said Rep. Jeannie Darneille, a Tacoma Democrat who cosponsored the freeze legislation.

The general-government agencies Darneille oversees may eventually reach “crisis-level staffing” that can’t withstand a hiring ban anymore. But, she said, “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

‘CRITICALLY NECESSARY’

Brown said his agency has followed the Legislature’s order to grant exemptions only “for the critically necessary work of an agency.”

Before a request is approved, personnel and budget officials check the state payroll to see how many similar positions there are and consider whether someone else could take on the duties, or if it could be filled only temporarily.

Agencies requesting hires often have already cut jobs and want to add back part of what they’ve lost. Other times they’re just changing titles.

Hiring wish lists are pared down before they ever land on Brown’s desk, he said; there’s no way to know how many jobs agencies want but don’t request.

“Critically necessary,” of course, is in the eye of the beholder. The budget office doesn’t deny hires because of the programs they’re in; whether to continue a program is a decision for policy-makers. In some cases, “It’s probably not critical,” Brown said, but “it’s critical to that program that the Legislature has asked them to do.”

For example, the Legislature hasn’t banned agencies’ efforts to promote themselves, he said, so requests for graphic designers to do that marketing may be critical.

Graphic designers were approved for Western Washington University, Shoreline Community College and the Eastern Washington State Historical Society, along with a communications official to do graphic design and other work at the Combined Fund Drive that raises money for charity.

Secretary of State Sam Reed’s office, which runs the fund drive, tried to assign the work to someone else but found it too heavy a workload.

In some cases, small offices would go dark at times without the jobs. There’s just one archivist in a Cheney satellite office of the State Archives, overseen by Reed. A manager being hired will oversee that and another branch office, which store records including land deeds for local governments east of the Cascades.

“Olympia’s not in the middle of the state, and there’s a lot of fretting over how far away your records are,” said State Archivist Jerry Handfield.

A single employee is tasked with buying equipment for the physical education and athletics department run jointly by Spokane Falls and Spokane community colleges: the athletic manager, filled through a freeze exemption by Ken Halpin.

Halpin, who moved over from a now-vacant job in the department, manages the gymnasiums, weight rooms and fields for the largest community college athletic program in the state, where players take on other schools in soccer, basketball, softball, baseball, track, cross-country, tennis and golf. Community groups use the facilities too.

Considering the rate of obesity and heart disease in the country, Halpin said, physical education “is a matter of life and death, and it’s why the people in this department do what they do.”

The budget office looks with favor on hires that aren’t funded with state taxpayer money. Jobs at the fund drive are paid for out of contributions. Others are federally funded, such as a new job, called a stewardship coordinator, approved last month for the Tacoma-based Puget Sound Partnership. Or they are funded by local governments, such as a new position in the Department of Fish and Wildlife raising salmon at a fish hatchery at Chelan Falls.

Sen. Joseph Zarelli of Ridgefield, Senate Republicans’ point man on budget issues, praised OFM’s job in managing the freeze but said the Legislature may need to look for a better way based on what he said sounds like a high number of approvals.

“Sometimes I wonder if management at certain levels gets it,” he said, “(or) just finds ways to just have that need.”

BLANKET EXEMPTIONS

At times, the budget office has allowed agencies to make an open-ended number of hires to fill certain jobs, including custodians, 911 operators, road construction engineers and temporary school workers.

The Department of Transportation, for example, was authorized to hire workers to operate ferries and ferry terminals. It has made 153 mostly part-time hires.

Federal laws and union contracts set requirements for staffing levels in ferry operations, the agency said. The budget office said there’s no need to make the same decision over and over by approving each one.

“When the ferry doesn’t run, do I want to say, ‘It’s because the hiring exemption is in my purple folder’?” said Murray of the OFM.

Blanket exemptions have also been allowed in the Legislature, where top staff members manage their own exemptions without OFM oversight and don’t face the possibility of denial.

With the 2010 legislative session starting next month, the House and the Senate have signed off on plans to hire more than 200 session staffers.

That is several dozen fewer than before budget cuts began three years ago.

Then there are the blanket exemptions written into the freeze law by the Legislature.

All told, state agencies in the executive branch made more than 5,200 hires from April to November. That doesn’t count hiring by the public schools, colleges and universities.

HURT BY FREEZE

But for many who manage hiring in state agencies, there are too many hoops to jump through when someone leaves the agency and the need for their work remains. The frustration comes out in the requests.

“The delays we encounter in requesting review and approval to fill positions during the hiring freeze adds to our backlog and factor into our ability to respond to public disclosure requests effectively and timely,” the Department of Health said in a request for records analysts. Meanwhile, the Department of Social and Health Services wrote that the hiring freeze was “increasing the likelihood of a high rate of attrition” among social workers in the agency’s Community Services Division.

Carole Washburn, deputy director for operations with Labor and Industries, said that at some point coming soon, “You have so few people left to get the job done that something like a freeze, it’s not effective anymore.”

  Comments