Brawn & brain drain in state government

The media attention on the state employee early retirement proposal has been focused mainly on the bottom line — the savings to the state budget. 

The package will provide savings by replacing more experienced workers with less expensive ones. While the savings will help balance the budget, the loss of these workers will have an impact on human services delivered in our local communities. Maintaining an adequate workforce in our communities is a priority to support vital community services. 

To put this in perspective, the state workforce was already at a low point after a decade of cuts and two previous early retirement packages coupled with few new hires after years of hiring freezes. 

The state workforce has shrunk greatly from its peak of 70,000 workers in 1980 to 51,000 in 2008, although the workload hasn’t declined by the same proportion. With each early retirement plan, more meat was taken off the bone. The remaining state staff has picked up the slack, resulting in increasing caseloads. 

From 2001 to 2008, the number of  state workers fell by more than 11,000 workers, or more than 18 percent, according to a report by Michigan State University Professor Charles Ballard. The latest plan, according to Gongwer News Service, resulted in an additional 4,700 staff reduction, with nearly 60 percent from the human service delivery staff.

The biggest chunk will be taken out of the Department of Human Services, which lost the most with 1,306 retirees. This staff reduction is on top of employment declines of more than 27 percent during the current decade. The Department of Community Health will lose 565 employees, the Department of Corrections, 439, and the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, 397. Education lost an additional 60 workers from an already small department of 450 workers. All told, about 4,700 state workers retired. 

The impact of  fewer state workers will be felt in our local communities. There is an old adage to “do more than less.”  But in reality, without adequate staff, we do less with less. Communities will rely on the workers left behind, who already working huge workloads, while the need for public services is expanding. 

While some of these workers may be replaced, their replacement is likely to be slow given the $1.4 billion budget gap ahead of us. The early retirement was implemented in a rush-rush fashion as the Legislature provided no time to hire replacements at the very time of increasing demand for services associated with hard times. 

In the past, term-limited governors and legislators have relied on experienced state employees but there will be even less of them now.  Fewer workers mean less capacity to provide crucial services to Michigan citizens.

Adult services workers stretched thin

A rash of news stories about frustrated and angry people seeking help from understaffed state human services offices has revealed to us the strain of too few resources and too many people in need of help.

And a lawsuit over inadequate care for abused and neglected children in Michigan has forced new investments in the child welfare system.

But another story – this one of staff who investigate complaints of adult abuse, neglect and exploitation and who offer independent living help for elderly adults and those adults with disabilities  – was given by the Department of Human Services with pie charts and line graphs at a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Human Services earlier this week.

The bottom line is this: The 2002 early-out incentives for state employees permanently reduced the staff available to look out for the frail elderly and other vulnerable adults. (The department lost 2,800 experienced workers in that retirement wave.)

During that wave of retirements, the decision was made by the Engler administration to replace any worker dealing with children, but none of those workers dealing with adults.

The upshot? Michigan has 328 adult services workers, down from 541 adult services workers in 2000. That means caseloads have risen in the Independent Living Services program from 73 cases per worker to 175 cases per worker. Clients used to get four visits from a worker; that’s been cut to two.

Forty-three counties have just one worker and 22 counties have two workers.

Perhaps the most revealing statistic was this: Despite rising referrals of complaints of adults who have been abused or neglected (often by the very people who are entrusted with their care) the number of confirmed instances of mistreatment of vulnerable adults has held steady at around 9,500 per year.

The caseload for Adult Protective Services is 38 per worker; above the national average of 25 cases per worker, the committee was told.

Unfortunately the need for investigations into complaints of elder abuse will only grow as Michigan’s population ages.

Let’s face it – as with caregivers of children, those who live with frail adults are often stressed to the maximum and lash out at very vulnerable people. And as with our children, we must offer protection to those who are unable to protect themselves.

The PowerPoint given by the department ended with a quote from Pearl Buck: “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.’’

— Judy Putnam