Sharetha Benefield walked along the chain-link fence topped with razor wire, was buzzed through the gate, and crossed a courtyard to enter a concrete building at the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice’s Ridgeville evaluation center.
In a waiting room decorated with children’s paintings, the 27-year-old Ladson resident joined five other applicants who came for Wednesday’s job fair. A U.S. Army veteran, Benefield saw the agency as a chance to launch a new career.
“It takes a village to raise and child, and I’m looking forward to joining the team and partaking in the mission,” she said, hoping to become a guard at the youth corrections agency and fill one of 300 jobs currently vacant at Juvenile Justice.
The staffing shortage at Juvenile Justice, which employees nearly 1,300 people and cares for just shy of 3,400 youth, is not unique in state government.
More than 17% of South Carolina’s roughly 44,600 state jobs remain vacant, according to recent numbers from the S.C. Department of Administration. That’s up from two years ago, when 14% of state jobs were unfilled.
In total, more than 7,600 positions remain unfilled across state government, up from more than 6,500 unfilled positions in November 2017 and 6,000 unfilled positions in spring of that year.
Those vacancies do not include the teaching jobs school districts are struggling to fill as a teacher shortage worsens.
The state’s deficit of workers also remains much higher than in 2007, before the Great Recession, when just 11% of the state’s 46,300 positions were vacant.
Of the state’s 10 largest agencies, ranked by employment, all have more than 10% percent of their positions vacant.
SC agencies struggle to compete
Low pay, a tight labor market, continued private sector job growth and demanding workloads in state jobs have made it difficult for state agencies to recruit workers to fill vacancies, according to state officials.
Even applications for jobs at Juvenile Justice have dropped off, falling to about 14,000 this year from 20,000 last year and 17,000 the year before.
Officials blame the decrease on an uptick in the economy, leading to more job creation and opportunities in other sectors, and on higher advertised salaries at other state agencies.
For example, a human services coordinator at Juvenile Justice earns an annual salary of about $35,700 a year, compared to more than $40,000 at the state’s mental health, public safety, aging, addiction services and vocational rehabilitation agencies. The position provides screenings, assessments and case management for patients and inmates.
“The biggest hurdle to overcome is salaries and the wages state employees make, especially on entry-level positions,” Juvenile Justice Director Freddie Pough said.
Competition with local government and the private sector also has contributed to a dearth of state employees.
A 2016 state study found the pay of S.C. workers lags 15% behind that of other states and 18% behind the private sector.
In the state budget adopted this summer, lawmakers included a 2% raise for state employees and a $600 bonus for those making less than $70,000 a year. But critics, including state Democrats, argue that isn’t enough to slow turnover at state agencies. Roughly 75% of those workers earn less than $41,000 a year.
“It’s good the General Assembly appropriated a pay increase and bonus for employees this year … but to address recruitment and retention there has to be a comprehensive implementation of the 2016 pay study recommendation,” said Carlton Washington, executive director of the S.C. State Employees Association. “Otherwise, you’ll continue to see the erosion of public services, particularly in critical state agencies,” like the state’s health and environmental protection agency.
About 20% of S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s jobs — about 500 positions — remain unfilled.
With roughly 3,000 employees, DHEC is one of South Carolina’s largest state agencies. The department, among other things, oversees hospital expansions, provides public health services, issues birth certificates, considers environmental permits, studies water and air quality, and regulates garbage dumps.
And it, like many government agencies, is facing an upcoming wave of employee retirements — more than a third of the agency’s workforce is eligible to retire within the next three to five years. Meanwhile, 42% of DHEC employees have been with the agency less than five years.
“Productivity is down because (current employees) spend more time training new employees, so it’s a double-whammy,” Washington said.
A DHEC spokeswoman said the agency is working with the S.C. Department of Administration to increase salary ranges for key positions to compete with the private sector. She also said the agency plans to hire a recruiting and talent management director to develop a recruiting and retention strategy.
Pay structure ‘antiquated’
Over the last three to four years, lawmakers have taken a targeted approach to addressing the worker shortage by raising pay for difficult-to-hire state positions in corrections, law enforcement, juvenile justice and direct care staff that work with individuals with disabilities.
State agencies also have changed their recruitment strategies: streamlining the hiring process,- investing in marketing campaigns and using social media to promote various careers in state government.
But lawmakers still face pressure to raise state employee pay. And some lawmakers see a need to rethink the state’s classification and compensation system.
“I think we have an antiquated system right now. We have pay bands that were probably developed in the ‘80s and ‘90s that are still in effect,” said S.C. House budget chairman Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, adding he wants to study the state’s pay structure and work on reforms.
“That being said, while the pay is low, there are some positives,” Smith said. “The state health plan is probably the best insurance plans that you can get ... as an employee. And over the last five or six years we have tried to minimize any increases” in employee health care premiums, despite “tremendous” increases in health care costs.
The 2016 pay study, however, revealed that the state’s benefits package is not competitive enough to offset low salaries, with employees contributing more to retirement and health care plans than surrounding state governments or the private sector.
Shortages lead to problems
Staffing shortages in state agencies have led to security and safety concerns — culminating in one of the country’s deadliest prison riots, heavy case loads for child-welfare workers and curtailed community mental health delivery.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to close the gap with the current options available to us now,” said Debbie Calcote, deputy director of administrative services for the S.C. Department of Mental Health.
Nearly 11% — or about 500 — of the department’s more than 4,600 positions remain vacant, including positions for psychiatrists with specialties in general, child, forensic and geriatric care.
State mental health counselors earn an average salary of more than $38,000 a year, compared to about $50,000 on average across the nation. And they can earn $7,000 to $10,000 more a year on average in Georgia and North Carolina, according to federal labor data.
Those factors, combined with a state and national shortage of nursing and psychiatric staff, have made it difficult to hire and keep staff, Calcote said, adding the agency has relied more heavily on contractors to serve patients.
Staffing vacancies also have resulted in supervisors temporarily taking on higher caseloads — sometimes being responsible for as many 60 clients and patients, Calcote said.
Turnover and a limited pool of qualified applicants have made filling positions challenging, hindering Mental Health’s ability to reduce staff-to-patient ratios and expand community mental health services, which can prevent unnecessary hospital stays, Calcote said.
In 2018 alone, a total of 884 employees — or about 20% of the workforce — left Mental Health Of those who left, about 16% took jobs elsewhere, about 20% retired and another 47% left for personal or unknown reasons.
The growth of mental health programs for schools and communities has only exacerbated the problem, Calcote said.
In addition to offering retention and performance bonuses and advertising at nursing and psychiatry conferences, Mental Health is advertising its jobs in hospitals, technical colleges and private behavioral health care providers.
In radio and TV adds, the agency is promoting its openings with the tagline: “It’s not just a job — it’s a CAREER with a PURPOSE!”
But the bottom line — what the agency can pay — still hinders recruitment, she said.
“We still have to face issues with competitive salaries,” Calcote said. “The largest hurdle is salary structures.”
Incentives to stay
Corrections, tasked with housing criminals, has nearly 23% — or almost 1,400 — of its jobs open. That’s up from about 1,200 vacant positions in November 2017, or about 19% of its jobs that were open.
Under his leadership, state Corrections Director Bryan Stirling says his officers’ salaries have gone up on average to $35,000 with more for overtime from $27,000 with no overtime pay in 2014. With overtime pay, officers are earning close to $40,000 on average, he said.
“We’re in a very tight labor market” with low unemployment and private-sector job growth and “competing with county and local detention centers for correctional officers,” Stirling said, adding Greenville County raised its starting salary to $41,000 a year.
Lawmakers gave Corrections nearly $2 million to hire managers who help rehabilitate inmates and reenter society and to retain mental health and medical staff.
To encourage staff to recruit for the agency, Corrections increased its recruitment bonus to $250 from $25. Current employees are eligible for a one-time bonus of $250 for each new officer they refer to the department when they’re hired and another $250 once they complete training.
The agency boosted its number of recruiters, and has committed $2.5 million over two years to spend on billboards and TV, radio and internet ads promoting its officers and opportunities for career advancement within the department.
“Because of that, we have seen an increase in the number of people hired by more than 50% for each of these years,” department spokewoman Chrysti Shain told The State.
Still, the agency still has challenges, Stirling said.
Turnover rates at Corrections for first-year officers have been as high as 50%, according to agency data.
To curb turnover, Corrections recently began using forensic testing to better screen candidates based on various character traits to identify potential criminal and counterproductive behavior.
“Money helps … but doing a pre-check of correctional officers to make sure it’s a right fit for them so they don’t wash out after investing time and money in training officers (is invaluable),” Stirling said.
Other corrections systems across the country are encountering similar challenges, Stirling noted. As older officers retire and experienced supervisors quit, hundreds of positions are waiting to be filled.
“We’re hiring plenty of folks, and now it’s figuring out how to retain them … and give them incentives to stay.”