Many state agencies face an ongoing staffing crisis. High turnover rates and a lack of consistent expertise within agencies ultimately inhibit access to services many Texans rely on and harm Texas families. The most recent report from the State Auditor’s Office (SAO) indicates that “better pay/benefits was the top reason cited for leaving state agency employment” in fiscal year 2022. The same report highlights the statewide turnover rate is the highest in a decade at 22.7%. In the current circumstances, agencies cannot retain the number and quality of staff required to deliver vital and timely aid.
The agencies with the highest turnover rates are also the ones that help our most vulnerable Texans:
- Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD): 45.8%
- Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ): 32.5%
- Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC): 29%
- Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS): 28.9%
- Department of State Health Services (DSHH): 21.2%
Driving Factors of High Turnover
Three years after the start of the pandemic, Texans continue to experience the effects of inflation on food, energy, and housing. According to the Texas Comptroller, the food inflation rate in 2021 was 14.3%, the highest since 1979. Additionally, gas and natural gas inflation rates are rising at 48% and 22%, respectively. Supply chain issues, increasing interest rates, and high rents mean the cost of living in this state is increasing faster than salaries are keeping up. Texas has the second largest GDP in the country, yet employee pay remains stagnant, and Texas ranks 48th among the best states for workers.
The factors that are driving state employee turnover rates are the same factors driving more vulnerable Texans to seek state services, only to find access to those services stymied by staff shortages. With a historic $33 billion carry-over balance from the previous biennium, the legislature must ensure our state agencies can recruit and retain staff. The most direct and immediate action legislators can take is to increase pay, benefiting both employees and employers.
It is both expensive and time-intensive to recruit and replace employees. Some reports indicate that it can cost anywhere from $4,000 to four times an employee’s salary to replace them. While it takes an average of 36 days to replace a private sector employee, it can take up to 96 days for a state agency to fill a vacancy. Additional costs include reduced productivity, low morale, as well as recruiting, training, and background check expenses. While wages are typically identified as the largest expense of an organization’s budget, recruiting, hiring, and training replacement employees in a high-turnover environment often costs much more.
Paying the Price for Underfunded State Agencies
Underfunding our state agencies has become an unsustainable crisis, as demonstrated by the harrowing stories from Texans.
Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD)
In any given year, roughly 50,000 Texas children interact with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) through arrest or referral. The agency’s ability to carry out its mission has been deeply affected by staffing and funding shortages, and the agency is currently under federal investigation for an alleged series of mistreatment and abuse instances. There have been reports of children urinating in bottles because they are confined to their cells for as many as 23 hours per day. While the TJJD website declares that detention is “protective, not punitive,” narratives from inside these facilities paint a different picture. Nearly half of the children in the care of TJJD are on suicide watch. Without a sizable investment in these children, and the employees that serve them, Texas will continue to break the promise to protect them.
Untenable conditions exist for staff as well. At Giddings State School, a juvenile corrections facility, a lone female detention officer supervising males outside of their cells spent nearly her whole shift in menstrual blood-soaked pants when her calls for relief went ignored by a depleted staff. When Giddings removed medical professionals from the night shift, untrained detention officers were then made responsible for responding to extreme mental health crises and suicide attempts. These conditions contribute to staff turnover rates that have reached as high as 70% in a single month. Staff have made clear what would aid agency retention efforts. Exit interviews performed with departing staff indicated higher pay as a primary mechanism to improving retention. When the agency made permanent a 15% pay raise for some officers in 2021, they saw a significant increase in applications.
With most new hires leaving the agency within six months, remaining staff do not have the capacity to care for all the children inside of the five Texas youth prisons. This issue is so severe that in July of 2021, Interim Director Shandra Carter stopped accepting newly sentenced children because they were unable to provide for the 600 youth already in their care across five state prisons. Employing a stable workforce will enable TJJD to operate safe and therapeutic environments and reinforce effective interventions, supports, and services for youth and families.
Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS)
A 2022 report outlined how turnover within the Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS) worsened in the prior year. The highest rate of turnover is in the division that handles child abuse cases, rising to 42% in 2022. Entry-level salaries for positions at the DFPS have remained stagnant since 2016. With rising costs of living, their current pay is simply not adequate to draw enough qualified candidates to fill the vacancies at DFPS. One hiring specialist shared that positions with 400-500 applicants in 2019 now draw barely 100. These turnover and application rates are not only a crisis of quantity but also of quality. Some former DFPS employees have reported pressure from management to continue hiring to meet monthly quotas, even if candidates weren’t qualified. The pressure to hire due to turnover contributes to ongoing service issues within the agency. For example, in 2020, there was only one Spanish-speaking employee in the entire Central Texas unit.
These situations put both the youth in the system and the employees who serve them at risk. Recently, two inadequately trained employees experienced violence while supervising children in their care. These incidents often happen at temporary placement facilities, where children stay while awaiting placement. In 2020, 47 children utilized these facilities and this number expanded to roughly 200 in 2022, but staffing did not increase at the same rate. The problem worsens when staff are unqualified and under-trained. Many are not trained in de-escalation tactics and are ill-equipped to intervene when violence occurs amongst children in their care. DFPS is responsible for some of our most vulnerable populations, covering Adult Protective Services, Child Protective Services, abuse investigations, statewide intake, and prevention services. Their wide breadth of responsibilities makes investment in their improvement all the more vital.
Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC)
Life-sustaining programs such as Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are also understaffed. These programs had approximately 1,000 fewer workers processing applications and renewals in 2022 than the year before. Due to this, Texas families experienced longer delays in accessing crucial health coverage and food benefits. Currently, new claims for disability benefits can take upwards of seven months to process with a 142% increase in backlog. With the upcoming increase in renewal applications due to the Public Health Emergency (PHE) ending, the outlook is grim for an already depleted workforce. The agency has made an exceptional items request for 642 additional FTEs for this specific purpose. This situation impacts Texas children who are eligible for benefits from receiving the care they need.
HHSC cannot rely on the private sector to carry the burden of this collapse when many communities do not have enough providers. For example, in 2022, the city of McAllen was missing about 170 licensed psychologists to meet national health standards. Many HHSC programs, such as those intended to fund preventative services to students before mental health crises occur, have been unable to reach their full potential due to personnel shortages. Thousands of Texas families are on waiting lists for the Youth Empowerment Services (YES) waiver program, which helps parents seeking mental health support for their children.
The childcare workforce, already facing persistent recruitment and retention issues, continues to decline since the pandemic. These providers and educators make an average of $11 per hour, often without benefits. Foster care providers report resorting to hiring unqualified staff because there is a shortage of qualified applicants to serve the state’s most vulnerable children.
Unlike state employees who are paid directly by the state, teachers are paid with state and local funds through local their school district. In 2022, Texas lost close to 43,000 teachers. With current pay ranking in the bottom ten in the country, $7,500 below the national average, that’s no surprise. According to the Texas Education Agency, full-time classroom educators start at just over $33,000. Many teachers in urban areas cannot afford to live where they teach and must commute long distances. A 2022 poll from the Charles Butt Foundation found that over three-quarters of Texas teachers considered quitting last year. Texas teachers earn about 22% less than other college graduates, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute.
The Teacher Vacancy Task Force, formed at the direction of Governor Abbott, recommends funding “an increase in overall teacher salaries by increasing state funding,” and that “Texas teacher pay has not kept up with the cost of inflation,” but statewide leaders have not yet made a specific commitment to increasing teacher pay.
Texas parents have positive views about their children’s educators and are satisfied with their public schools. 89% support increased state funding for public schools to boost teacher salaries as a measure to address the retention crisis. Over 75% believe that the salaries of longer-tenured teachers are inadequate. Texans are in favor of a more comprehensive compensation system that factors in years of experience and economic inflation alongside a teacher’s education level and certifications.
88th Session Legislation
In previous sessions, bills requesting compensation for state employees working in high injury risk positions and a career salary ladder have been introduced but never made it out of committee. This session there are several bills to address state employee turnover, including HB 202 by Rep. Bucy, which proposes a $10,000 increase in salary for full-time state employees, and a proportional increase for part-time employees. There are also several bills filed to raise teacher pay including HB 1548 by Rep. Talarico, which would raise minimum teacher pay in Texas from $33,660 to $48,660 (a $15,000 increase), as well as HB 882 by Rep. Howard and HB 1107 by Rep. Goodwin to raise the basic allotment for public education, subsequently increasing teacher and support staff salaries.
House Introduced Budget
Both the House and Senate introduced budgets include $1.8 billion for a 10% pay raise for general state employees over two years, or a minimum of $6,000 over the biennium. Many agencies are also submitting exceptional item requests for increased pay or staffing, testifying that they are desperate for funding to recruit qualified applicants and fill open positions. The Texas State Employees Union is calling for an across-the-board $10,000 minimum pay raise for all state employees to align with findings from the State Auditors Office that show that almost 44% of former state employees reported annual salary increases of $10,000 or more at their new jobs.
What’s Happening in Other States
Texas is not the only state facing employee turnover challenges, but other states are taking action. Governor DeSantis’s Framework for Freedom Budget in Florida created a 5 percent increase for all state employees, an additional 10 percent increase for certain “hard-to-hire” positions, and increased the Department of Corrections base hourly rate to $23 per hour. California is prioritizing retention and recruiting, proposing more than $487 million in salaries and benefits for FY 2024. States like Florida and California, similar to Texas in population and agency size, are ahead of Texas in the effort to increase state employee pay.
Now is the time for Texas to lead the charge and become a catalyst for change and a model for the rest of the country.
Texas leads the nation in population growth and is set to welcome 10 million new residents by 2036. Our state drew nearly half a million new residents from July 2021 to July 2022. We lead the nation in job growth, exports, and are the ninth largest economy in the world. This investment and commitment to our state by our residents is what has brought us an unprecedented surplus that we must use wisely. If we fail to act on behalf of these vital Texas agencies and the Texans they serve, we will not earn the trust of recent arrivals, and we will lose the trust of those who have been here for generations.
We can, and must, take remedial action now. A major tenet of ensuring a full, qualified state workforce is recruiting and retaining professionals with competitive salaries. Instituting the first cost of living increase for state employees in 21 years will help restore our vital workforce and sustain our most valuable asset, Texans.