State workforce grows despite hiring freeze

The Minnesota House chambers
A Minnesota Public Radio News analysis of state hiring data found there have been nearly 5,100 hires between Pawlenty's announcement and April 21 of this year. During the same time period, 4,827 positions were vacated.
MPR Photo/Steve Mullis

The number of people on the state's payroll has grown even though thousands of government employees have retired since Gov. Tim Pawlenty ordered a hiring freeze at state agencies.

Graphic: Positions filled
A Minnesota Public Radio News analysis of state hiring data found there have been nearly 5,100 hires between Pawlenty's announcement and April 21 of this year. During the same time period, 4,827 positions were vacated.
MPR Graphic/Than Tibbetts

Pawlenty issued the executive directive on February 19, 2008, which directed state agency commissioners and board executive directors to implement hiring restrictions. During his radio show that week, Pawlenty and his director of Communications, Brian McClung, said the order would help the state prepare for a bad budget situation.

"We wanted to put on a hiring freeze of state employees to say that 'We're going to have to do more with the same number or a fewer number of people at least for a while in state government,'" Pawlenty said.

McClung added: "In 2007, last year there were about 3,400 workers that left state government service. So if you pull back, if you make sure you're only filling critical positions, you can squeeze some savings."

Pawlenty's order said "positions that become vacant from now until this directive is rescinded should be left unfilled in every possible case."

But a Minnesota Public Radio News analysis of state hiring data found there have been nearly 5,100 hires between Pawlenty's announcement and April 21 of this year. During the same time period, 4,827 positions were vacated. Another document found that the state's workforce actually grew by 12 people between March 1, 2008 and March 1st, 2009.

Read the governor's February 2008 executive directive to restrict hiring across state agencies.

See a comparison of state employment between March 2008 and March 2009.

Some of the new hires, like public safety personnel and corrections officers, are exempted under Pawlenty's order. But others are more questionable. Twenty public information officers, 20 education specialists and even a few automobile and van drivers were hired.

"We keep hearing over and over 'It's time to tighten our belts, do more with less, live within our means.' I don't see that happening with these kinds of numbers," said DFL Sen. Don Betzold of Fridley.

Betzold said he was surprised to learn of the new hires. Betzold chairs the committee that oversees and funds state government. He said he thought the hiring freeze would mean a reduction in workers.

"Certainly everybody can come up with some justification as to why one individual position ought to be filled or a couple of positions ought to be filled," he said. "If that's happening all over the executive branch then the hiring freeze doesn't mean very much."

Read a sampling of agency justifications for filling open state government jobs.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said the hiring freeze was meant to slow the rate of growth in tough budget times.

"It was not designed to be a 100 percent hiring freeze meaning no person would ever be hired to fill a spot," McClung said.

He said agency commissioners and department heads are expected to make decisions as to which hires are necessary.

"They have to justify the decisions that are made and we managed to slow down the growth so much that essentially no employees were added between March of last year to March of this year," McClung said.

But documents supplied by the Minnesota Management and Budget Department show the justification for some of the hires has been left blank. Other descriptions were basic, one-line job descriptions. Other descriptions include "workload too much..." and "supervisor does not have skills and knowledge adequate to provide appropriate support."

The other problem is that no one within Gov. Pawlenty's office or MMB is policing the hires to see if they should be prevented under Gov. Pawlenty's order. Judy Plante, assistant commissioner for MMB, said no hires were rejected or denied by her office or the governor's office.

"I'm not aware of an approval process other than the agency heads making that determination but I'm also not aware of other conversations that have gone on," Plante said.

Plante couldn't say how many positions have been left open as a result of the hiring freeze. As a result of MPR's questions, the governor has directed MMB to review and enforce the policy restrictions created under his order to ensure that hiring decisions are reviewed.

One state lawmaker said she doesn't think Pawlenty should be policing state agency hiring. DFL Rep. Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis said state agencies should get a budget, and officials should manage the best they can.

"If someone leaves who is essential, with a very broad definition of what essential is, they ought to be replaced," Kahn said. "If suddenly something comes up that you need a new set of expertise in, you ought to hire someone who can provide that expertise."

Kahn said the real problem with Pawlenty's hiring freeze is that it makes it look as if state government is overstaffed when it's not. Her counterpart in the Senate said Pawlenty talks a lot about the need to tighten belts in the tough economy, but his actions don't match his rhetoric.

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