Jerry Brown grants bulk of state hiring freeze exemption requests

Published: Sunday, Sep. 18, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 18, 2011 - 10:10 am

In the seven months since imposing a hiring freeze to deal with the state's fiscal woes, Gov. Jerry Brown has greenlighted nearly three-fourths of all requests for exemptions to hire state workers.

Most of those jobs were low-paying positions without benefits, a Bee analysis of state data from March through May shows. Exclude those approvals, and Brown turned down more hiring requests than he allowed.

State officials asked to hire 3,642 workers in the months following the governor's Feb. 15 order that departments freeze hiring unless authorized by the administration. The total cost to fill all the jobs would have been $15 million a month, according to the departments' estimates.

Brown's office granted exemptions for 2,661, or 73 percent of those requests, for jobs ranging from lifeguards to social workers, psychiatrists to police officers.

Of the 981 Brown denied, nearly half were refusals to hire trainees for the California Highway Patrol and prisons.

The Bee reviewed 115 freeze exemption request forms sent to the Brown administration by 46 agencies, departments and offices. Each form, some asking to fill hundreds of positions, was assigned to Department of Finance analysts with the appropriate expertise.

After a back-and-forth with the department seeking the exemption, finance officials passed the requests on to the Governor's Office with a recommendation to accept or reject them in whole or in part.

Brown's office had the final word, said Elizabeth Ashford,the governor's deputy press secretary.

Jobs covered in the hiring pitches ranged from high-level, six-figure administrative positions to some of the lowest-paid seasonal work the state offers. In keeping with the governor's order, each made a case for why the jobs were indispensable.

The Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs, for example, made a plea to hire a new deputy director. The position, paying $7,984 to $8,634 per month, oversees licensing and certification for a variety of drug programs and, among other duties, "advises the Director and Chief Deputy Director regarding sensitive and complex issues" concerning residential narcotics treatment policies.

"Without a deputy director, the Division lacks leadership to manage and set priorities necessary to ensure proper licensure and certification of alcohol and drug recovery treatment programs," department officials said in their pitch to the governor.

The Brown administration turned down the request, noting that the position had been vacant for nine months. The department has managed by assigning the work to another deputy.

At the other end of the spectrum, the state Department of Parks and Recreation asked to hire 2,020 park fee collectors, lifeguards, maintenance workers and the like. The workers staff 278 facilities from April through September, earning an average of $10 per hour with no state benefits.

"These are the folks who keep the system running," said department spokesman Roy Stearns. "You lose more money than you save without these people."

The Brown administration approved them all, figuring that for every $1 spent on those jobs the state receives $2.40 in revenue.

But it turned down park officials' request to make 63 other hires, including 50 guide trainees, a student assistant and an archaeological project leader.

"Park aides, maintenance aides and lifeguards are critical to the operation and for providing basic services in the state park system," the administration said. "(I)t is not necessary to have graduate assistants, archaeological project leaders" and other employees it deemed non-essential "to maintain a basic service level."

No cadets approved

The biggest thumbs-down went to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which asked to hire 340 trainees for its 16-week correctional officers' academy.

Corrections said attrition alone creates 1,200 vacancies annually. It figured that nearly 800 more officers would leave by year's end.

Brown said no. Corrections needs to keep a "higher than usual level of vacancies," the administration's response said, so that it can quickly slim down, since the state is shifting some prison and parole responsibilities to local governments to save money.

Brown froze hiring in every department, including those that receive little or no money from the general fund, which is the center of the state's budget problems.

The California Highway Patrol, for example, gets funding for its $1.97 billion budget largely from state driver's license and vehicle registration fees. None of its money comes from the general fund.

Transportation and Housing Secretary Traci Stevens, whose agency oversees the CHP, submitted a hiring request form that shows the agency had nearly 300 vacant officer jobs with an attrition rate of 22 officers per month. It has cut costs and hit its budget goals. Without new hires, the agency argued, CHP would take longer to respond to accident and crime calls.

Brown rejected the request. The department won approval for 780 new officer positions, the administration said, based on the growth of California's population and the increase in registered vehicles and licensed drivers. Not all of those jobs have been filled.

The administration told the CHP that it wants to preserve the option of reducing staffing in the future without layoffs, and so wants to delay hiring until a decision on appropriate staffing levels is made and fulfilled.

Thaw in freeze unlikely

More hiring requests are in the pipeline, and the administration has told departments they'll have more hiring freedom when they meet their budget-cut targets, said Brown spokeswoman Ashford.

But there won't be a formal order to lift the freeze any time soon. If anything, the state's foundering finances could make hiring even more difficult.

"It all depends on the state's revenues," Ashford said last week.

The 2011-12 budget includes so-called "trigger cuts" that kick in early next year if the state takes in less money than anticipated. Should that happen, Ashford said, it's likely departments will have to go back and look at slashing more jobs.

It's not looking good. Controller John Chiang reported last month that July general fund revenue missed expectations by $538.8 million, or 10.3 percent.

Still, the state continues to hang out its "help wanted" sign.

Some departments hope they'll get a hiring freeze exemption, so they want to be ready to hire quickly, said Department of Personnel Administration spokeswoman Lynelle Jolley. "And beyond that, an employer the size of the state of California can't just look for people when it's ready to hire. Departments need a pool of candidates from which to draw."

It's difficult to know how much the hiring freeze is helping the state save money, said Tracy Gordon, a state budget expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

California's budget problems are so big that saying no to a few thousand hires "doesn't make much of a dent," Gordon said. "On the other hand, every little bit helps."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jon Ortiz



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