Workplace has changed forever — and the public sector lags

Workers and shoppers at at the checkout area of a food store in the San Francisco Bay area. (Sundry Photography, via Shutterstock)

As much as we all might yearn for everything to go back to just the way it was before the novel coronavirus uprooted the world, we know that there are things that can never go back.

Workplaces have forever been changed.

The advent of remote work, the effect of the Great Resignation in which workers asserted a new sense of mobility, a surge in retirements, the years of strain and burnout endured by the essential workers who got us through the worst of it – these things and more have forged a new reality. Workplaces must adapt.

“The public sector is also suffering from labor shortages, and job openings have more than doubled in the last decade.” — UC Riverside economists

We are seeing that now in the private sector, where employment has at last rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. Employers have had to be nimble to make that happen by raising wages, adopting flexible work hours, offering bonuses to bring on new workers, and taking other steps to make workers feel valued.

The public sector is lagging behind. State and local government employment remains below its pre-pandemic level – in California, about 100,000 jobs below what it was. The public sector workforce has been hit particularly hard by retirements and other departures; one survey of state- and local-government workers nationwide taken late last year found that 52 percent were considering leaving their jobs voluntarily.

Across the nation, government agencies are becoming increasingly challenged to staff the public services which enable our society to function and underpin the economy at large.

As economists at UC Riverside wrote this summer, “We need to specifically address the challenges faced by government agencies in their effort to provide public services… The public sector is also suffering from labor shortages, and job openings have more than doubled in the last decade.”

Against this backdrop, government leaders must take a fresh look at the collective bargaining agreements they negotiate with workers. It will take vision, creativity and a willingness to step beyond the way things have always been done to craft contracts that will enable public services to keep pace in a post-pandemic world.

Wage gaps between public- and private-sector workers must be closed. Flexible hours and hybrid work schedules must be accommodated. Financial incentives must be created to bring aboard new workers and retain experienced employees.

Ways must be found to recognize work that serves the public by the state of California when it negotiates with us next year. If the state continues its recent policies of wages that don’t keep pace with inflation, slashing pensions and increasing workloads, thousands more state workers will join the Great Resignation.

In some areas, the situation has already become a crisis. In Alaska, for instance, 1 in 5 state jobs is vacant.

In California, we are feeling the effects of teacher shortages, of understaffed public hospitals, of a shortage of workers that has stretched firefighters beyond exhaustion.

The list of public jobs that are challenging to fill goes on: engineers, equipment operators, maintenance workers, inspectors, social workers, nearly all those who make up the fabric of government services.

The strain of these shortages creates a vicious cycle. As vacancies pile up, the workers who remain are forced to try to fill the gaps, which creates more burnout, which leads to more vacancies.

Where this all could lead ought to be obvious. As one expert told Time magazine this spring, “The bottom line is that the people rely on government services, often without realizing it, and the core of the government services on which they rely is the people. A neglect of those issues is something that will have an enormous impact on every single citizen.”

Government must adapt to the new workplace reality that the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered by investing in workers who are charged with serving the public. If it fails to act boldly, the effects will be evident for all to see.

Editor’s Note:  Bill Hall is Chair of SEIU 1000’s Board of Directors; Irene Green is the Vice President of Bargaining for the union.

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