Politics & Government

California’s state payroll holds steady despite deep job cuts at key departments

The Public Eye
The Public Eye

Through California’s budget busts and rosier-than-expected revenues, in good times and bad, two things have held steady during Gov. Jerry Brown’s third term: the size and payroll of the state workforce.

But while the overall bureaucracy remained unchanged, many departments added staff and others axed jobs. Economics, federal funding and court decisions triggered some of the changes. Politics guided others.

The number of employees under the governor’s authority has remained flat despite the departure of a combined 10,000 workers from the state’s prison system, the Employment Development Department and the Department of Developmental Services. The mass exodus of staff from 2011 through 2013 amounted to about 4 percent of the current state workforce, according to state pay records analyzed by The Sacramento Bee.

Hiring continued elsewhere. The Department of Health Services and the fledgling Health Benefit Exchange, for example, added a combined 1,600 employees over the three-year span.

“Some of the other areas where employment in the state has grown reflect the governor’s personal priorities,” said Michael Shires, a government budget expert at Pepperdine University, “including increased staffing in the Department of Veterans Affairs and the High-Speed Rail Authority.”

Nearly 245,000 full- and part-time state workers under Brown’s authority drew paychecks worth a combined $15.33 billion last year. Both figures were down a fraction of a percentage point from state pay and personnel levels in 2011, Brown’s comeback year in office. The numbers don’t include the cost of benefits, which add nearly 50 percent to the state’s total compensation costs.

A spokesman for Brown’s Department of Finance, H.D. Palmer, said the overall numbers were flat because of “offsetting” factors. Savings from hiring freezes and furloughs offset higher expenses from raises given senior employees last year, for example. Some departments cut positions and shrank their ranks through attrition or outright layoffs. Others were in hiring mode.

The High-Speed Rail Authority, overseeing the bullet-train project that remains a priority for Brown despite its poor poll numbers, nearly tripled its state staffing to 116 employees last year. Payroll went from $2.5 million to nearly $7 million. Brown’s budget plan for next year adds another 60 positions.

Those figures don’t include a variety of consultants the authority uses, said rail spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley, but “it will always be state workers making state decisions.”

Rail officials have asked Brown to add more positions to the coming year’s budget, Alley said, and she predicted staffing will continue growing as the project moves along.

The fledgling Health Benefit Exchange that runs the state’s version of national health insurance, Covered California, was just getting off the ground in 2011 with 14 employees whose combined pay didn’t quite reach a million dollars. Last year, nearly 900 employees worked for the department. Total payroll: $22.8 million, entirely from federal funds.

“Our staffing levels rose because a growing number of people had to create a new marketplace, online enrollment website, and state department from scratch,” said exchange spokeswoman Anne Gonzales, “so hiring has been continuous and on an uphill climb since our establishment in 2011.”

Brown’s budget for next year adds more than 300 Covered California staff members, anticipating that the program will continue to grow. Most will work in the department’s customer service unit.

The federal government gives money to both the rail authority and the health benefits department. That provides their budgets some independence from the California’s shifting politics and from state revenue that fluctuates during California’s boom-and-bust economic cycles.

Despite the state’s improving economy and brighter budget outlook last year, many of them took staffing and payroll hits.

Among those with at least 1,000 employees, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, which depends almost entirely on state money, was the biggest loser in the payroll sweepstakes. The prison and parole system shed nearly 7,500 workers over three years and cut its annual payroll by $563 million, far more than any department. While it remains the largest state operation, the 58,000 workers it employed last year was 12 percent fewer than three years ago.

Some of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s downsizing has come from a 3-year-old law that sentences some convicts to local jails instead of serving time in state prison. Brown launched the policy in response to a federal court order that the state significantly shrink its prison population. The department handed off its parole duties to local agencies.

“This has all driven down the need for correctional staff,” said Mike Genest, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s finance director. “You have fewer prisoners, so you need fewer guards.”

Meanwhile, the state shut down its 16-week correctional officer academy to save money, even though retirements in its aging correctional officer corps were accelerating. The academy reopened in mid-2013, but attrition has left the department short by about 2,000 correctional officers to meet its current needs, said Corrections spokesman Bill Sessa. Some of its most remote facilities, such as Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, are chronically understaffed.

The corrections ax also fell outside prison walls, including at administrative offices in Sacramento. Deep budget cuts prompted four waves of layoffs so far, Sessa said, and “hundreds of headquarters jobs went away.”

The Employment Development Department has avoided similar layoffs, but officials there say attrition has eroded staffing after the federal government pared back funding for the programs it administers. State figures show EDD employed about 9,500 workers last year, down 13 percent from two years earlier. Payroll decreased by nearly $28 million, a 5 percent decline.

Genest said such cuts at EDD are usually automatic.

“(The federal funds) come and go with the employment rate and the number of people on unemployment insurance and (the number of) new claims,” he said.

But EDD spokeswoman Loree Levy said the federal government cut funding too deeply. Demand for unemployment insurance services in California “remains twice what it was before the recession,” she said.

So as staff have left the department to retire or take other jobs, EDD hasn’t been able to replace them,. The ratio of unemployment insurance claims-to-staff has gone from a little over 600 to 1 just three years ago to nearly 750 to 1 now. Work has stacked up.

“As you can imagine,” Levy said, “this is what has led us to real challenges in providing timely (unemployment insurance) services.”

The state has approved emergency funding to hire a few hundred unemployment insurance workers to speed up processing of benefits in the coming months and to replace departing employees.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee