Politics & Government

State hiring freeze, such as it was, thaws in July heat

The Legislative Building.  (Olympian File Photo)
The Legislative Building. (Olympian File Photo) The Olympian

A state hiring freeze put in place by lawmakers expired last week, having created a lot of paperwork without stopping many jobs from being filled in Olympia.

Thousands of employees were added to the payroll during the 151/2-month freeze; lawmakers purposely shielded some from the freeze, and some were approved by officials under 1,975 special exemptions.

And many of those exemptions covered multiple jobs – an average of 1.75 jobs per exemption in the freeze’s early months, data show.

In one example more recently, the state’s Medicaid agency was allowed last winter to use state and federal money to fill 25 vacant positions, plus any similar ones that might open in the future.

Some employees were sought to answer phone calls from the state’s rising Medicaid population – calls that had tripled in volume to the point that just three in every 20 calls were answered by the shrunken staff. Adding workers improved performance to more than six in 20 calls answered, Health Care Authority spokesman Jim Stevenson said.

“We are relieved to be out of the hiring freeze, but I know that the agency is taking a real measured approach to hiring,” Stevenson said, saying some jobs need filling more quickly than others. “There won’t be any burst of hiring that could take care of all those vacancies at once.”

The state government work force is still shrinking.

By one count, the state employed the equivalent of 110,000 full-time workers on average in fiscal 2010, excluding K-12 schools. Through 11 months of fiscal 2011, the work force dropped to an average of 107,600. And lawmakers budgeted even fewer workers, 106,500, for the new two-year budget period that started this month.

Some in the Legislature see the freeze they passed in 2010 as a qualified success. It gave the governor’s office a clear picture of hiring as it happened, said House budget chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina.

“It worked for what we needed it to do,” Hunter said, “which was, we needed to downsize, and we needed to send a message to agencies before we had an opportunity to really work their budget over.”

Now that lawmakers have passed a budget that includes head counts across state government, agencies need the power to hire within their budget levels, Hunter said.

Likewise, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s office says agencies should be free to cut to those levels and then hire without approval from state leaders.

Agencies agree, especially those accustomed to more independence. At universities and community colleges, faculty were exempt from the freeze, but colleges needed approval to hire financial officers, graphic designers and athletic managers.

“It’s important that the college be able to look at their student and community needs and make decisions without having them second-guessed by Olympia,” said John Boesenberg, director of human resources for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Boesenberg said colleges became conservative in hiring as budget woes deepened. Colleges sent him few requests for new hires in the final months of the freeze, though that’s partly because they knew the restrictions were about to end, he said.

Those who aren’t sorry to see the freeze go away include officials in the governor’s budget office, who didn’t want the job in the first place. Their shelves are loaded with exemption forms that attest to the paperwork hassle. The office even justified one hire by saying the employee was needed to process hiring exemptions.