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State To Drop Temps In Favor Of Permanent Hires

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Steve Zind
/
VPR
Derek Flint adjusts a truck's chains at the Randolph VTrans garage in March. The agency, along with three other state divisions, has been granted authority to exceed maximum staffing levels in an effort to reduce reliance on short-term workers.

There’s an experiment underway in state government, and it involves the science of staffing. The state of Vermont, which employs as many as 1,500 temporary employees at any given time, is taking efforts to reduce reliance on short-term workers by allowing for more permanent hires.  

Government managers are generally bound by statutory caps on the number of full-time employees their agencies can carry. But a new pilot program allows for a new approach. And it tests the idea that adding workers might actually make it easier for agencies to adhere to their budgets.

“That is kind of what we’re playing with here, and seeing how responsible organizations and agencies can be with functioning within their appropriation,” says Maribeth Spellman, the newly installed commissioner of human resources.

Four government divisions – the Agency of Transportation, the Department for Children and Families, the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Buildings and General Services – have been granted authority to exceed their maximum staffing levels.

"How are you going to develop those five-year, those 10-year employees, so that when 10 years from now somebody retires you're going to be able to replace them? You're not going to be able to do that with temps." - Maribeth Spellman, commissioner of human resources

And Spellman says the pilot has already spawned some pretty drastic personnel moves. At the Department for Children and Families, the state is in the process of trading 113 temp workers for permanent equivalents – DCF has brought on 73 additional full-time employees so far.

Permanent unionized workers are more expensive, and draw higher salaries and good benefits. But Spellman says the gains in productivity can outstrip the impact on payroll.

“I’ve heard many organizations say, you know, if you give me one full-time employee that I can train and train well, they can do the work of three temps,” Spellman says.

In some instances, the addition of new bodies is projected to save money even without the elimination of temps. The Agency of Transportation, for instance, is bringing on 24 new permanent employees. But those workers will be able to perform work formerly done at higher cost by outside contractors.

“They’ve mathematically just figured out by creating these positions, with the amount of contracts they’ll be able to reduce, they’ll actually save $1 million a year, because contractors, per head, cost about 20 to 25 percent more per body than a full-time state employee does,” Spellman says.

The infusion of permanent workers helps the state position itself for a 10-year period during which 45 percent of all government workers are scheduled to retire.

Spellman says the infusion of permanent workers also helps the state position itself for a 10-year period during which 45 percent of all government workers are scheduled to retire.  

“How are you going to develop those five-year, those 10-year employees, so that when 10 years from now somebody retires you’re going to be able to replace them? You’re not going to be able to do that with temps, or personal service contract workers. You need to be developing your bench for the inevitable,” she says.

Steve Howard, director of the union that represents state employees, calls the program a welcome improvement to staffing policies.

“What I think the Shumlin administration is experiencing is what our members have been telling them for years, which is that the use of temporary workers and contractors is an inefficient way to run state government,” Howard says.

"What I think the Shumlin administration is experiencing is what our members have been telling them for years, which is that the use of temporary workers and contractors is an inefficient way to run state government." - Steve Howard, director of the union that represents state employees

And Howard says the state of Vermont shouldn’t participate the kind of substandard treatment he says temporary workers are subjected to during their stints with state government.

“I mean, we are not Wal-Mart,” he says. “And we should not be exploiting workers who are doing the same work state employee are doing, working fulltime, with no benefits, no protections.”

Lawmakers authorized the two-year pilot project earlier this year, and it’s unclear yet what kind of budgetary impact the program will have. Spellman says other government agencies have expressed interest in participating in the pilot, and that the administration will consider asking the Legislature to expand it.

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