State Workers

Workplace glass half-full

State workers' wages are frozen, their health care benefits cost more out of pocket and their workloads are up in agencies slimmed down by layoffs.

Yet by one measure, state government employees were slightly happier on the job last year.

Those surprising findings were revealed in a survey of worker satisfaction by the Department of Personnel conducted in October.

Workers in general were slightly more satisfied working for the state last year than in 2007, a year when some workers got double-digit pay increases and government was adding thousands of jobs in the midst of an economic expansion.

The explanation lies buried in the 13 questions asked in the survey, said Mike Sellars, deputy director for the Personnel agency.

For example, some questions eliciting high ratings from workers dealt with whether they understood what was expected of them, whether their supervisor treated them with “dignity and respect,” whether supervisors held workers accountable, and whether their work contributed to agency goals.

Sellars said Gov. Chris Gregoire’s more recent emphasis on agencies doing personnel reviews, which provide employees with useful feedback, might also be a factor.

“The data was showing the agencies were not uniformly completing those regularly,’’ Sellars said recently. Over the three years, employees have “regularly and uniformly found them to be more meaningful,’’ he said.

Greg Devereux, the executive director for the Washington Federation of State Employees, says he questions the survey methodology. He thinks the DOP’s reported 59 percent response rate is unheard of and says the findings fly in the face of news that pay is frozen, 3,200 jobs are being cut in all branches of state government, and Gregoire wants to cut 1,500 more to balance the budget.

Workers in 68 agencies, boards or commissions participated; 22 percent of respondents were in supervisory roles and 37 percent were from the Olympia area.

But while Devereux questioned the validity, he also said he has seen unexpected trends over the past year as agencies’ line staff members have been forced to work more closely together than in past years – if only out of a sense of survival. Devereux reports seeing “the closest cooperation between labor and management” that he has witnessed in decades on the front lines, as well as some cooperation with agency directors.

ON A SCALE OF 1 TO 5

Whatever the cause, the survey found that the most satisfied workers are at the Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals, a small agency with little turnover and a stable mission. On a scale of 1 to 5, it clocked in at 4.37 – up from 4.23 two years before.

The worst? The Department of Information Services, which added a new director in mid-2009 and has a new agency headquarters under construction just east of the Capitol.

DIS saw its worker satisfaction score drop by a significant margin to 3.41, while Corrections, which had the lowest-ranked morale in 2007, saw one of the biggest improvements – up 0.17 to 3.53.

“If you took this today, it would be different,” DIS spokeswoman Joanne Todd said. She noted that at the time of the survey, new director Tony Tortorice “had only just started. I think people are getting to know him better. Things are moving ahead.’’

At Corrections, Secretary Eldon Vail said the results left him “baffled a little bit’’ because his agency gets a black eye when things go wrong, and successes can go unnoticed. But Vail thinks the improvements stemmed from the agency’s effort in recent years to do employee evaluations and what he called “over-communicating” with workers about the agency’s actions and goals.

At the industrial appeals board, appeals judge Laura Bradley attributes the high level of employee satisfaction to the support of managers.

“They provide the tools and equipment we need to do our jobs. We don’t have to go through a lot of red tape and bureaucracy to get the things we need,” said Bradley, who has worked at the industrial appeals board for eight years.

Bradley added in a recent interview that during times of need – if a family member is sick, for example – someone always volunteers to fill in.

Aimee Howard, a judicial assistant, loved the place so much that she found herself pleading to get her job back after temporarily leaving for a higher-paying position as a mortgage broker.

“I offered to clean the toilet for the board,” Howard said, adding that the “overwhelming sense of family” most influenced the rating she submitted.

“It’s a smaller agency, but the difference between us and other agencies is from the top board member, down to the summer intern, everybody just cares about each other,” she said. “Everyone knows each other’s story, but not in a gossipy way.

“It’s really because they care. I sound like a Hallmark card, I’m sure.”

WORKER COMMENTS

Several state workers from different agencies spoke Friday morning to a reporter while they ate or picked up food from the public dining area in the basement of Office Building 2 on the Capitol Campus.

Many did not want to comment, and of those who did, several declined to be identified. Most said they think their agencies’ workers are grateful just to have a job.

Clay Swaney, a heating and air conditioning mechanic for the Department of General Administration, said he was surprised to hear of the survey results.

“It was a real touchy-feely, standard employee survey, is what I felt,” he said.

Swaney said the survey did not give many options “where you could point out what you thought of management and the chain of command.’’

At GA, the average morale score had fallen by 0.22 since 2007 – from a score of 4.03 on a scale of 1 to 5 to 3.81, just below the statewide average of 3.84.

Swaney didn’t dispute the overall findings that morale had improved since 2007 at many agencies. He did say he works in a buildings-and-grounds unit that faces potential layoffs, and circumstances have changed since the survey was taken in October – including the hefty drop in state revenue in November that turned the budget shortfall into a $2.6 billion chasm.

“Nobody anticipated this would happen,” he said. “It was before everything crashed.’’

Other changes are in the works that could undermine morale. The state Senate voted Friday on a bill to impose mandatory furloughs of one day a month at most state agencies. It will result in 13 unpaid days for workers from June this year through June 2011, if Senate Bill 6503 passes.

Swaney said he, his wife and their two dogs will be able to survive if he is furloughed, cutting pay by about 5 percent each month. But others are not so fortunate, he said.

Even so, he said he is open to furloughs if it saves jobs, which is the same line of thinking that Senate Democrats have used in promoting the furloughs idea.

Judy Hall, who works in the planning, performance and accountability arm of the Department of Social and Health Services, declined to comment on morale because she is a manager. But she offered tempered support for furloughs.

“I think it will cause a hardship for some,” Hall said, adding, “Where I sit, if it saves jobs, I’m for it.”

Hall said her unit already used voluntary furloughs to spare a job.

Two DSHS workers in the computer-services division did not want to give their names, but they were not surprised by the survey results.

“I think there is a lot of the ‘survivalism’ going on,” one said. “People are happy just to have a job in this economy … I think that is part of it.’’

Two other workers at a table – one with the Attorney General’s Office, the other with the Department of Natural Resources – said they think supervisors in their agencies have tried to do a better job of managing performance.

The DNR worker said she was relatively new to the agency but noted that the results were surprising, given that a new director took over the agency in 2009, during the downturn.

Even so, she said, “I think morale is pretty good, because the expectations are clear.”

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688

bshannon@theolympian.com

www.theolympian.com/politicsblog

Staff writer Maks Goldenshteyn contributed to this report.

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