Nearly a quarter of NC state government jobs are vacant: 'I do almost four jobs'
North Carolina’s state government agencies are facing a major worker shortage. They’re looking to the legislature this year to increase salaries so they can better recruit and retain employees.
One of the hardest-hit areas for staff vacancies is a state Department of Agriculture veterinary lab in Raleigh. That’s where Dr. James Trybus oversees testing on dead farm animals — among others — to check for illnesses and diseases.
While the lab usually has three pathologists to run these tests, right now it only has one. The lab overall has an 18% vacancy rate.
And one of the agency’s satellite labs in Elkin, which serves the Triad and surrounding counties, has had to shut down entirely due to the shortage.
“We've lost both of our veterinarians in that role,” Trybus said. “We had to shut down necropsy services in that area. It's a poultry-dense area. We're always concerned about infectious diseases in the poultry industry, particularly avian influenza.”
Trybus worries that could make it harder to catch the next outbreak of avian influenza, which caused problems in North Carolina last year. He’d like to fill the openings, but low salaries mean he’s gotten few qualified applicants.
It’s the same story down the hall where Daniel Gaines leads the agency’s food safety inspection program. It's his job to ensure the safety of manufactured foods as well as bakeries and seafood markets throughout the state. He’s losing inspectors to higher-paying jobs with the Federal Drug Administration.
“We do all the work, we do the same work that the FDA does,” Gaines said. “But we don't get the same pay or at least not even close to the same pay. It's a real wide gap.”
It takes time to train new food safety inspectors, and once they’re trained, they often leave for similar jobs that pay more.
In a recent presentation to legislators, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said he asked for funding in last year’s state budget to increase salaries for jobs where the same workers could earn more money elsewhere.
“I think we got a million dollars last year in salary adjustment, and I think I had asked for eight,” he told lawmakers. “And I'm going to be frank with you: My first thought was, 'We got just enough money to piss off everybody.' And that's exactly what happened.”
Airplane pilots working for the department got a raise, but their co-workers were left out.
“It made the mechanics feel that they didn't get a pay increase,” Troxler said. “So, my No. 1 mechanic and No. 2 mechanic walked out the front door of the hangar, went down three hangars, and took a job. The first one got $40,000 a year more; the second, $30,000.”
Troxler asked legislators again this year to fund at least $8 million in salary increases.
Across North Carolina state government agencies, more than 23% of jobs are currently vacant. That’s up from about 12% before the pandemic. And last year the turnover rate was nearly 17%.
Lawmakers from both parties recognize it’s a problem they’ll need to address in this year’s budget. But the question is how much the state can afford to spend.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s budget calls for giving all state workers a 5% raise this year, along with a bonus of at least $1,000. His plan also includes an additional $250 million to adjust salaries for jobs where the current pay doesn’t match the labor market.
Altogether, Cooper wants to spend more than $2 billion raising employee pay. Senate leader Phil Berger says the governor’s proposal is more than the state can afford.
“What I would say is it’s probably not realistic given the reality of dollars that are available, the need to keep spending within certain confines,” he said. “I just don’t know that it’s a realistic proposal.”
House Speaker Tim Moore told WUNC that Cooper’s plan “creates a budget hole and would result in tax increases.” But he said that the House is “moving forward with what we believe are very aggressive and generous raises that we can afford for teachers and state employees.”
The State Employees Association of North Carolina, or SEANC, advocates for state workers. Executive director Ardis Watkins says Cooper’s proposal isn’t enough to solve the problem.
“That doesn’t even keep up with inflation,” she said. “So, if it was a normal year, it wouldn’t be a raise that’s going to be competitive with other employers. With everything we’re experiencing, with a 23% vacancy rate, you’ve already got employees doing the work of several people, almost everywhere. You’ve got employees in some agencies who cannot take time off, time they’ve earned.”
Watkins says state workers used to be willing to earn less because they received government benefits. But those are less generous now because new employees won’t receive state health insurance after they retire.
While the vacancy rates are highest in the state’s prisons and in the Department of Health and Human Services, the Division of Motor Vehicles might be the place most people notice the worker shortage.
Visiting the DMV these days can require standing in line for hours or making an appointment three months in advance.
Tanika Williams supervises a driver’s license office in Raleigh. She says she’s constantly short-staffed, because workers are finding higher pay elsewhere.
“I have 14 stations,” Williams said. “And right now today, I have five of us, but I have 14 stations.”
That means Williams and her team often have to skip lunches or work past 5 p.m. to keep things moving.
“I do almost four jobs,” she said. “I'm the supervisor, I do road tests, I service almost 50 people literally daily, and I handle the front. And I do all of that.”
The DMV recently raised starting salaries for driver’s license examiners by $6,000 to about $40,000. But Commissioner Wayne Goodwin says that number needs to be closer to $50,000 to attract people.
“The greatest incentive for folks to join us is making sure that the salaries reflect what the labor market indicates is an appropriate salary,” Goodwin said. “You know, for many of these positions, they are presently folks having to work second jobs, or they're working full time in restaurants and earning more doing that job than being a driver's license examiner, so we're losing out on some personnel who could help us.”
He says full staffing is key to reducing wait times.
“If we were fully staffed across the state, every day, we'd be able to reach hundreds more customers,” Goodwin said. “And you can just certainly, if you multiply that every month, we're losing out on thousands and thousands of customer interactions that we cannot do otherwise.”
Over in the Department of Agriculture, Troxler says the staff shortage is only going to get worse.
“25% of the employees in the Department of Ag are eligible for retirement within five years,” he said. “So not only are we having recruitment trouble, retention trouble, but now we're going to have a massive amount of people retiring in the department.”
State House leaders plan to release the first draft of their budget proposal this week. That’s expected to pass in early April.
The Senate will then develop its own spending plan, likely in May, before Republican leaders in the two chambers create a compromise budget to send to Cooper. They’re optimistic that will happen before the new fiscal year begins July 1.