It’s no secret the COVID-19 pandemic was catastrophic for employment across the U.S. and in Arizona. As the virus began to ravage the country, some industries, like hospitality, were hit hard and forced to lay off thousands of employees.
But it seems Arizona’s government was mostly immune to the impacts that befell others. In fact, according to a report from the Arizona Department of Administration, state agencies actually grew their numbers in the early months of the pandemic.
The State Personnel System Workforce Report, which illustrates the ebbs and flows of Arizona government employment throughout Fiscal Year 2020, showed the largest growth in employees since 2015 — the same year Gov. Doug Ducey came into office.
Previously, the numbers had declined year after year. The report revealed the state boasts 37,779 active employees across multiple branches, with the bulk (33,859) working for state personnel system agencies. Approximately 1,943 work in public safety, the second largest group. The rest are spread out between judicial, legislative and miscellaneous departments that keep the state up-and-running.
The current headcount marked an increase from the numbers recorded in 2019, by 862 employees. It’s the largest rise since 2015, which counted 34,200 employees, and has fallen steadily since then. 2019’s report only saw 32,997 employees working for the state.
Andy Tobin, director of the Arizona Department of Administration, indicated in a letter to Ducey, Arizona Senate President Karen Fann and Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers that the pandemic is largely responsible for that growth.
“The year was unprecedented in terms of sustaining agency operations in the midst of a global pandemic,” he wrote in the public letter. “This contributed to increases in staff within key areas such as the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, and the Department of Child Safety. It also undoubtedly played a factor in reducing our statewide turnover by just under 2%.”
A spokesperson for DCS said the new positions were included in the budget, but that staffing the agency is typically difficult when they don’t have a pandemic to contend with.
“The additional positions were already in the department budget, but were previously unfilled positions,” said Darren DaRonco. “It is a challenge for the department to remain fully staffed in any environment, let alone during a pandemic, due to the nature of our work. The department is constantly in a state of hiring up and training up.”
“The work is difficult, and with the pandemic the department has been experiencing higher-than-normal attrition rates, around 4% per month,” he continued. “When case workers resign, their caseload falls upon experienced caseworkers in each field office, driving caseloads for individual workers back up. While we have around 350 trainees statewide at any given time, each trainee receives six months of training prior to carrying their own caseload, and not all trainees make it through our training program.”
The report further indicated six agencies shouldered much of the growth on their own: the Arizona Department of Child Safety, which gained 70 new caseworkers, the Arizona Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, which hired approximately 255 additional correctional officers as COVID-19 crowded state prisons, the Arizona Department of Economic Security, the Arizona Department of Health Services, which led the charge in public health amid a global health crisis, the Arizona Department of Revenue, and the Arizona
Department of Transportation, which hired 61 new workers to take part in highway operations and transportation construction during a time when roads were less busy than usual.
Doug Nick, ADOT’s assistant communications director for public information, said the department did its best to adapt to the changing world and better serve its customers amid the pandemic.
“ADOT’s True North is ‘Safely Home’ and our employees have done outstanding work despite the uncommon challenges of the past 18 months,” he said. “The Motor Vehicle Division devised new strategies to safely serve customers and provide new contactless and electronic ways to do business with MVD. Highway design, construction and maintenance efforts have continued so that we can fulfill our vision to become the most reliable transportation system in the nation. ADOT administrative and support divisions have maintained a steady pace to serve customers even as many employees have transitioned to new working environments because of the public health situation.”
While the pandemic obviously caused losses in some departments, no agency lost more than the 22 employees that left Veterans’ Services.
As Tobin mentioned in his letter, turnover was 1.9% less than in 2019. But average salaries also increased for state employees. The average salary was $48,462, a 1% increase over the previous year. That’s even with the suspension on salary adjustments and one-time pay incentives that ADOA enacted in April 2020. That average is only set to increase as the years go by: Salary.com predicts that Arizona state salaries will increase by 3% in 2021, according to the report.
Officials from ADOA said the 2021 report is due in a few weeks.