Indiana takes on high turnover with pro-employee policies

By: - September 26, 2022 7:00 am

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The state of Indiana shed hundreds of employees throughout the pandemic — and hired hundreds more since — in a turnover struggle that peaked in early 2022, according to data from the Indiana State Personnel Department.

Agency leaders say new employee-friendly policies from Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb are already helping, with more to come possibly in the way of competitive pay.

Indiana employed about 1,740 fewer people in September 2022 than it did when the pandemic began in earnest in March 2020.

But the state lost and hired more people than that overall, as it struggled, month by month, to keep up with turnover. In January 2021, the state entered a period of 12 months straight of decline, losing about 1,830 people by January 2022.

Staffing has ticked up about 260 people since. Agencies are hopeful their fortunes — and staff levels — are trending upward.

What’s up, besides attrition?

The pandemic took a toll on agencies directly responsible for fighting it, like the Indiana Department of Health.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box told the Capital Chronicle in late August that her agency lost about 330 of its 760 full-time clinical employees during the crisis — nearly 43% of that workforce. She referenced long hours and low wages.

The agency experienced two significant dips in staff levels in 2020 and 2021, according to the Indiana Transparency Portal, though it’s almost completely recovered since. And Health Department Spokeswoman Megan Wade-Taxter said the agency actually employs “several hundred” more people than shown on the portal: contractors.

Due to the varying terms and sustainability of those grants, those contractor numbers fluctuate each year,” Wade-Taxter wrote in a statement. “The ability to hire contractors allows us to staff up quickly when urgent needs arise, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have been able to recruit for our positions.”

Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration acknowledged pandemic-era vacancies — without specifying reasons — but lavished praise on staff members that stayed.

Interestingly, and despite the decline in filled job positions during the pandemic, at perhaps no time in our agency’s history did we get more done,” wrote spokeswoman Amy Duke in a statement. “Much of this was the result of dedicated employees who did what was needed to help the state navigate an unprecedented time.”

Duke also said new collaborations, like between the agency’s 211 resource hotline and the health department, boosted efficiency.

Others indicated their staffing drops hinged on a competitive labor market and worker scarcity. Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita’s office has lost a number of key aides in recent months.

“With over 400 employees in the attorney general’s office, there are naturally many people who have onboarded and left in this tight job market,” Spokeswoman Kelly Stevenson wrote in a statement. About 160 people departed the office in 2021 and 2022 so far, according to Stevenson.

IDEM, which began the pandemic in March 2020 with about 800 employees, lost about 50 employees by mid-2021, according to the portal. It’s narrowed, but not closed, the gap since then.

“Like employers across industries around the country, government agencies have not been immune to the current labor shortage,” Spokesman Barry Sneed said in a statement.

But staff levels at the agency actually peaked in 2016, at about 850 people.

The Bureau of Motor Vehicles shed employees during the pandemic, but its losses were part of a  larger trend dating back to December 2018, when the number of employees peaked at about 1,600 — compared to a low of about 1,350 in September 2021.

That, said spokeswoman Melissa Hook, reflects the change in Hoosiers’ preferences from in-branch visits to online transactions.

“Attrition has occurred as part of the changes lowering overall headcount needs,” Hook wrote in a statement. “The BMV is at appropriate headcount to maintain operational need and customer satisfaction. In a customer service environment, there will always be turnover and as such there is always a need to recruit.”

Leveling up

Holcomb’s pitch: NextLevel State Work Phase 1

  • Up to 15 hours/week of remote work, plus adjusted and alternative scheduling options.
  • Education reimbursement of up to $5,250 annually.
  • Community service leave of up to 15 hours annually for full-time employees and 7.5 hours annually for part-time employees.
  • Adjustments for new employee leave time.
  • Referral bonuses of $500 for candidates hired full-time, $250 for part-time work and $100 for “intermittent” work.
  • Agencies can do employee engagement, education and development activities during work hour.
  • Programs to re-hire retired state employees and smooth transitions for retiring employees and their successors.

Source: State of Indiana

Despite their staffing woes, some of the agencies that responded to the Capital Chronicle’s requests for comment expressed hope for the future.

In February 2022 — just after the 12-month period of losses — Holcomb announced a package of new and altered policies dubbed the “NextLevel State Work Initiative.” The changes target flexibility via hybrid work, employee engagement and wellbeing, and compensation.

“I hope [these changes] will lead you to re-committing yourself to your job, because we are committed to you,” Holcomb said in a State Personnel Department bulletin that month. “I want to repeat what I’ve told you before: Your work, day-in and day-out, to provide Hoosiers with excellent government service is the foundation that allows our state to work and to thrive.”

The first round of policies and changes, listed in the sidebar, went into effect in March.

“While we are continuing to hire employees, we have never been in a better position to be competitive,” Duke wrote. “The ability to hire more competitively, in a flexible work environment, and to connect people with our agency’s mission have us in a great position for the work ahead.”

By August, more than 250 employees had dipped into their new community service leave time, and more than 100 had at least begun the education reimbursement process, according to Personnel Department Spokesman Kirollos Barsoum.

“We will continue to rollout employee-centric policies and changes designed to benefit and attract to our No. 1 resource: State of Indiana employees,” Barsoum wrote in a statement. 

Among the next changes to take effect? Compensation critical in narrowing the gap between public and private salaries that contributes to attrition.

Wage updates, based on a study that began in late 2021, will “begin rolling out” this fall, according to Barsoum.

“We are encouraged and excited by the steps Indiana is taking to attract top talent to state positions, including remote work flexibility and an ongoing evaluation of employee compensation,” Sneed said. “Already in IDEM, we have seen those efforts help with employee retention and morale.”

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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie joins the Indiana Capital Chronicle after covering city government and urban affairs for the Indianapolis Business Journal for more than a year. She graduated from Northwestern University in March 2021, and has reported for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and student publications in Evanston, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Doha, Qatar.