State workforce shrinks to 2012 levels

Higher ed hit hardest, with UMass system losing 483 employees

MASSACHUSETTS STATE GOVERNMENT lost the equivalent of 1,409 full-time employees in one year during the pandemic, the steepest drop in state government employment since the Baker administration intentionally cut the state workforce in 2016. 

The drop was felt most heavily in higher education but also extended to executive and judicial branch agencies. State officials say there was not a major concerted effort to reduce the state workforce, but there has been a mix of attrition, a reluctance to hire, and an inability to hire, similar to what is happening in the private sector. 

“There were a lot of retirements, just like in many other industries,” said Vincent Pedone, executive director of the State Universities Council of Presidents, which represents public universities other than UMass. “There’s the issue of the difficulty finding folks who are able to fill positions. A lot of positions I know are available and campuses want to fill them, but they are unable to find the talent willing to accept those positions.” 

The state comptroller’s fiscal 2021 annual report, released last week, looked at the period between June 30, 2020 and June 30, 2021. During that time, the number of full-time employees working for the state dropped from 86,583 to 85,174, a decline of 1.6 percent. That figure represents the smallest state workforce Massachusetts has had since 2012.  

The only other time in the last decade that state government decreased its payroll by 1.6 percent or more was from 2015 to 2016, when the Baker administration offered an early retirement incentive to executive branch agencies in order to reduce the size of government and save money, and employment dropped by 1.8 percent. 

The state’s executive branch COVID vaccine mandate, which forced more than 1,000 people out of state government jobs, was not a factor in these numbers since it went into effect in October 2021. 

According to the comptroller’s report, the largest drop was at the University of Massachusetts, which lost 483 full-time employees. UMass spokesperson John Hoey said the drop was likely pandemic-related, since most university housing and dining services shut down for an extended period. Staffing levels only increased again in September 2021, when operations returned to normal.  

At the UMass flagship campus, UMass Amherst, spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski said the reductions were mostly in staff, not teaching faculty, and came after the university incentivized people to leave as a budget cutting strategy. “Many of the positions will be reconfigured or re-filled, but it will be slow as we are experiencing the same challenges in finding talent as most sectors in the economy,” Blaguszewski said. 

Other public higher education institutions were also among those that lost large numbers of employees – 205 at community colleges and 192 at state universities. One reason for the higher numbers is that public higher education comprises a large portion of the public workforce, with about 25,000 employees. 

Pedone said state universities did not have significant layoffs during the pandemic. But the “great resignation” had an impact as people chose to retire. Uncertainty about the future at the beginning of the pandemic meant the universities were not quick to fill many of those openings. And now, many people looking for jobs are seeking higher salaries that the universities can pay. 

Pedone also said the university system is looking to “right-size” its workforce as college enrollment drops throughout the northeast due to demographic changes.  

Sarah Yunits, deputy executive director at the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges, said the drop in staff at community colleges is likely related to a drop in adjunct-taught courses, which is tied to a drop in enrollment that community colleges in Massachusetts – and nationwide – have recently experienced.  

“We do believe that this is related, in part, to the pandemic,” Yunits said. “In addition to the general pandemic challenges, we know that COVID disproportionately impacted students of color and low-income students who attend community colleges in greater numbers.” 

The two executive branch agencies with the most job losses were the Executive Office of Health and Human Services (232 full-time equivalents) and the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (106 FTEs).  

The Judiciary was also near the top of the list, with the loss of 156 full-time equivalent positions, around 2.2 percent of its 7,200-person workforce. 

Health and Human Services is the largest agency in the executive branch, with more than 20,000 employees. Agency officials note that the human services and direct care fields were hard-hit with employment challenges more broadly, so it is not surprising that there was attrition among people working in those fields for state government. This spring, Baker signed a supplemental budget that included $400 million in rate enhancements for human services providers in order to help recruit and retain staff.  

The public safety agency says the loss of jobs is about 1 percent of its total workforce, and the agency continues to prioritize recruitment and retention. 

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Jennifer Donahue, a spokesperson for the Trial Court, said like other agencies the judiciary slowed its hiring during the early stages of the pandemic, due to uncertainty about the pandemic’s statewide fiscal impact and challenges in court operations. 

A separate report put out by the court system found that there were more employees who left the courts in 2021 compared to each of the previous two years – 478 departures compare to around 415 annually in 2019 and 2020. There was also less hiring, with 493 people hired in 2019, 410 in 2020, and just 324 in 2021.