Government Workers Can't Find Jobs

July 2, 2003
Until this year, Christina Backlund, a 15-year veteran of California’s Technology, Trade and Commerce Agency in Sacramento, believed that her job was secure. Frankly, she’d never considered working anywhere else. But now she’s expecting a pink slip any day, and is understandably anxious about how to carve out another career. "A lot of us were in denial at first, hoping this wouldn’t happen," she says. "But the state is cutting across all agencies, and you have to start making some kind of plan."

Throughout the country, thousands of state and city government workers are finding their careers similarly beached. From California to New York City, governors and mayors are vowing to narrow gaping budget gaps by slashing jobs. In a press release, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg sums it up in a word: "Painful." About 35 states and hundreds of local governments are grappling with budget crises, due mostly to sagging tax revenues resulting from a national economy that continues to move at an anemic pace. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that states are facing a cumulative $68.5 billion budget shortfall for fiscal 2004. NCSL president Angela Monson called the magnitude of the gap "startling," adding that sweeping job cuts were inevitable.

The fallout is that former government workers are confronting unique stereotypes and challenges in the job market. Recruiters say that much of corporate America, which is once again able to be choosy when hiring, would rather hire people with private-sector experience. Private-industry workers, the thinking goes, are used to worrying about pumping up revenue streams and making a profit. That comes with longer hours and, by extension, heftier workloads. Those working in government, on the other hand, are accustomed to guaranteed budgets and working hours and regular raises.

"A lot of people just think state workers have an easy time of it," says Sue Roberson, who is now in the private sector after working for several years as a secretary for the state of Iowa. "I don’t think that’s the case for most, but there is some of that. We had one department where we could have cut 50 people and still done the same amount of work. We had women that did their hair and nails on state time, so people probably have some reason to think that with a government job, all you have to do is show up."

Recruiters say they hear the same concerns. "Whether it’s true or not, that’s the perception of people who work in government, especially those who have worked there for a long time," says Karen Bloomfield, spokeswoman for Cleveland-based Management Recruiters International. "That’s a perennial problem for those people as they look for jobs."

She says that though many will eventually find jobs, their new careers are likely to pay less and offer fewer opportunities for advancement. Not surprisingly, this chips away at employee confidence, even among those who don’t get pink slips, Bloomfield says.

In Maine, for instance, state lawmakers were able to close a $1.2 billion budget gap with fewer than 200 layoffs. That’s less than 2 percent of the state workforce. Still, says Carl Leinonen, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, "if you’re one of those let go, it’s pretty awful. And among those they leave behind, there’s a lingering sense of insecurity." Leinonen and others close to the situation say that the uncertainty can become all-consuming, affecting workers’ ability to focus on their jobs and to be productive.

Leinonen says that for workforce managers at government agencies, the layoffs pose two significant challenges: first, restoring confidence in the survivors, and second, building on that confidence when it’s time to hire again, as many job-hunters shy away from employers known for making cuts.

A survey released in April by the NCSL in Denver reports that nearly a dozen states already have announced layoffs this year and a dozen more may follow suit beginning in July. California, which had a record $35 billion budget deficit at one point this spring, planned to eliminate 10,000 positions via attrition and layoffs. Connecticut has already given notice to nearly 3,000 people. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush wants to eliminate at least that many jobs through cuts and privatization of state services. That shrinking workforce, recruiters say, is redefining workers’ opinions about government careers.

In the boom years of the 1990s, cities and states increased their staffs by 20 percent, to about 19 million workers nationwide. That continued a rarely interrupted growth trend that began 70 years ago. College-educated professionals were attracted by the stability of government jobs that, in addition to good pay, often came with regular raises, ample opportunity for advancement and reasonable hours. But as governors and city councils more commonly view job cuts as the fastest way to compensate for declining revenues, the environment is changing fast.

Former government workers are facing a vexing issue. The job market already is saturated with laid-off white-collar techies, mid-level managers and other professionals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for highly educated professionals increased from 2.8 to 3.1 percent in the past year. The public-sector picture will only inflate that figure.

Glenda Gorsch, an 11-year veteran of Iowa’s state government, has learned that the hard way. She figured that her job as a liquor-license inspector would carry her to retirement. The work was stable, and she found it rewarding. "You help protect the public," she says. She earned about $42,000 a year. It wasn’t big money, but if she had worked until age 65, she could have built a decent retirement fund.

In May 2002, however, Gorsch was one of 200 state workers laid off as part of an effort to stem costs. After more than a year of job hunting, she’s still unemployed. "I’m not having any luck. There’s just not much out there."

A survey by the Washington, D.C.-based National League of Cities found that three-fourths of mayors say they are less able to meet their financial needs this year than last--the bleakest survey result in a decade. The leading drain in major cities, aside from weaker-than-expected tax revenues, is the soaring cost of law enforcement, the result of heightened homeland-security needs.

In New York, the hardest-hit of all, about 1,000 of the city’s 38,000 police officers have been pulled off their regular beats and placed on antiterrorism duty since September 11, 2001, forcing the city to pay other officers costly overtime on a regular basis to cover shifts. That has intensified the need to accelerate cuts elsewhere in city government. In what the local media labeled a "doomsday budget," Bloomberg announced in April that the city may have to let go as many as 4,500 of its workers to help offset a $3.8 billion revenue shortfall. Last-minute brokering for state assistance will trim that number, but the city still projects hundreds of cuts.

Meanwhile, Boston and San Francisco are each cutting more than 1,000 jobs. Federal aid may help, says John DeStefano Jr., president of the National League of Cities. But before the tide turns, state and city governments may have shed more than 100,000 people from their payrolls.

Workforce, July 2003, pp. 88-89 -- Subscribe Now!