Just four days into his new job as director of Child Protection Services, Jess Dickinson told a room full of legislative leaders about the “vicious circle” affecting his agency.
“A problem that has become very clear to me in trying to analyze why we have such a huge turnover – and it’s big, it’s 50, 60 percent in some offices – we can’t keep some offices (staffed),” Dickinson said during a hearing before the joint legislative budget committee on Sept. 21. “We don’t have a single case worker that’s been there more than a year and a half or two years.”
Dickinson’s problem is not unique among state agencies.
As of fiscal year 2016, Mississippi had lost 57% of state employees hired in the previous five years and “our voluntary turnover rate continues to exceed the state and local government average,” said Kelly Hardwick, executive director of the Mississippi State Personnel Board. That board is fitted with the unique task of overseeing 129 state-run agencies, boards and commissions.
This means state employees here quit or retire at a consistently higher rate than the national average. In fiscal year 2016, the rate of state employees who quit was 4.6 percent above the national average for state and local governments, Hardwick said.
This is part of the cycle Dickinson explained to legislators.
“What happens is it’s a vicious circle,” Dickson said.
Child Protection Services case workers are often recent college graduates with little experience, and when they appear in youth court, judges are known to overturn their recommendations and talk to them “a little harshly” because they seem unknowledgeable and inexperienced, he said.
“For these young people, this is traumatic,” Dickinson said. “And they go back and they cry and they’re upset emotionally, and they quit. So then we have go back out and try and find somebody else.”
Hardwick said when surveyed, state agencies consistently listed salary as the top reason employees said they were leaving state government.
According to the personnel board, the average annual salary for a state worker in Mississippi in fiscal year 2017 was $36,837, the lowest of any of its surrounding states. In fact, the difference between Mississippi’s average state employee salary and the neighboring sate with the next lowest annual salary —Arkansas — is $4,078.
Personnel board data shows 45 percent of resignations in fiscal year 2017 were by employees who were under age 30.
During the budget hearing, attorney Kenya Rachal told lawmakers exactly why CPS was losing employees.
“You’re asking a young, in most cases 23- or 24-year-old worker to get up in the dead of night, go into the home, and bring a child to safety oftentimes in dangerous situations,” Rachal said. “They’re not getting any extra pay for that, and they’re making about $27,000 a year.”
At a recent career fair in Gulfport, CPS director of employee relations Shannon Rushton helped applicants apply for frontline worker positions which would have employees working directly with families and children, such as those described to the legislators by Rachal.
Rushton said in the past, the agency only hired people with social work degrees but now opened up the qualifications to include related degrees to draw in more eligible applicants. The department is also examining its hiring process to make sure the people who are hired for these positions leave training prepared to work, she said.
“We’re also looking at our hiring process to make sure we’re hiring the best people for the jobs and that they’re aware of what the job entails so that they don’t come out of training unprepared or not ready,” she said. “Because it can be stressful, it’s a high intensity job. But it is extremely rewarding.”
Hardwick said his agency “is continuously engaged in efforts to help state agencies in addressing difficulties with recruitment and retention,” which include a variety of training programs for all types of state employees.
As of June 30, 2017, the most recent figures available, MSPB served 31 percent of the 88,879 full-time state workforce. Everyone else — the Governor’s office, legislative branch, Institutions of Higher Learning, public school teachers, and community colleges — operate independently from the personnel board.
The personnel board serves several key functions for the state workers it oversees, including the recruiting of employees, career counseling, and regulating processes and procedures for hiring and firing. MSPB also serves as a judicial conduit for aggrieved workers and their employers.
In an email, Hardwick said his agency provides “assistance in the recruitment and selection of new employees, efforts to promote retention of state employees, and training to ensure a quality workforce for our state.”
Hardwick was appointed to the position in March after former executive director Deanne Mosley stepped down to helm the Mississippi Bar Association.
“Additionally, MSPB’s services provide a level of protection for both state agencies and their employees by providing oversight to help ensure that employees are treated fairly and equitably and that grievances can be addressed appropriately when necessary,” Hardwick said.
In previous legislative sessions, lawmakers have filed bills to exempt certain agencies from personnel board procedures. During the 2017 session, lawmakers attempted to pass a bill that exempted 75 agencies, boards and commissions from the personnel board’s rules and regulations for three years. Mississippi Today found that as of Sept. 30, 2017, the entities listed in the bill employed roughly 15,000 people.
House Bill 974 ultimately died in a Senate committee, but supporters argued the bill would allow agencies more flexibility to reorganize, streamline and terminate people.
State-service employees fall under personnel board purview, which means they are subject to the agency’s rules and regulations. Employees need to work in their position for a year before they are officially granted permanent state-service status. Non-state service employees can be either part-time, or time-limited, meaning they are paid through federal grants and employed for a predetermined amount of time.
Hardwick said when an agency is removed from MSPB’s purview, employees are “typically divested of their civil service protections,” meaning they can be let go without cause.
“For the covered employees, a removal of this protection would essentially make them will and pleasure employees for whatever duration the Legislature determined necessary,” Kelly said.
The agencies themselves would also lose the safety net of the personnel board, which makes sure boards, agencies and commissions are following laws correctly, he added.
“This means that an agency is not required to adhere to any of MSPB’s policies including rules which deal with various aspects such as salary, minimum qualifications, and organizational structure without regard to general government standards,” Hardwick said.
MSPB is the agency responsible for recruiting candidates to the open jobs within agencies that fall under its purview.
The Human Capitol Core Processes Division reviews personnel activities, offers career counseling, and promotes jobs within the state. MSPB receives about 200,000 applications a year, officials said.
According to the division, the personnel board received nearly 15,000 applications in June 2017. Those interested in working for the state can apply online through MSPB’s job portal. The posting is required to stay up for at least three days, she said.
Chief of staff Maureen McDonald explained that MSPB works with each agency to identify needs and then puts job postings online, in the portal. Once the posting period ends, MSPB’s software filters through applicants to compile a list.
“So if the job required a Bachelor’s degree and I said I only had a GED (certificate), then I would be filtered out, assuming I answered truthfully, ” McDonald said. “And then we give the list and all of those applications for the people that met … whatever criteria it was to the agency. From that point in time it’s up to the agency to determine who it is they actually want to interview.”
Depending on the position, the board may check a candidate’s qualifications once the agency selects them.
“The hiring decisions and all are with the agency, and we try to give as much flexibility to agencies as we can while making sure that people that are getting hired for state positions are qualified,” McDonald said.
Hardwick said “some positions have proven difficult to recruit for at times with the primary reason cited for these difficulties by state agencies as salary.”
According to workforce statistics data provided to the Legislature during the most recent session, the average salary for MSPB state employees was in fiscal year 2016 $35,972. Overall, 61 percent of state employees earned less than that amount.
The biggest challenge, though, is getting people to stay in their jobs once they accept them, he said.
The personnel board is comprised of several boards within the agency — five members serve on the MSPB board, of the same name, in staggered five-year terms. The board votes on potential contracts, reduction-in-force plans, and other appropriate business during monthly meetings.
MSPB’s Office of Workforce Development works with agencies to provide professional development, while the board’s Personal Service Contract Review Board (PSCRB) is responsible “for the issuance of procurements and the award of certain personal and professional services contracts,” according to MSPB’s Fiscal Year 2016 Annual Report. The PSCRB is responsible for approving all personal and professional contracts worth more than $75,000.
At a July meeting, PSCRB director Torri (Catoria) Martin told her colleagues 343 statutorily approved contracts went into effect in fiscal year 2016, collectively worth more than $80.3 million. These types of contracts are automatically approved if the board does not object to them within 30 days of their submission.
Hardwick said members worked diligently through fiscal year 2017 to review as many of these contracts as possible and decrease the amount that were ultimately approved. As a result, just 31 statutorily-approved contracts went into effect, worth about $11.5 million.
This board will cease to exist at the end of 2017 — a bill passed during the legislative session shifts that responsibility to the Department of Finance and Administration. House Bill 1109 created the Public Procurement Review Board, which will begin operating in 2018.