Understaffed environmental agency “stretched to the limit”

Understaffed environmental agency "stretched to the limit"

By Trista Talton

Coastal Review Online

Nearly one-fifth of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality’s job positions are unfilled, leaving the agency responsible for administering regulations to protect water, air quality and the public’s health in a tight pinch that is not likely to loosen any time soon.

As of Oct. 25, 19.19 percent — 340 of 1,772 positions — in DEQ were vacant. That includes new, time-limited positions created to administer federal funding programs, according to information provided by a DEQ official.

DEQ’s staffing shortage is indicative of a broader issue in state government, where a number of departments are dealing with even steeper declines, putting the squeeze on state employees who are left to pick up the slack while typically making less than their professional counterparts in the private sector.

State government job vacancies were up more than 22 percent by the end of August.

The employee void is hitting every state government sector from public schools to safety to health and human services, all while billions of dollars are tucked away, unappropriated, in reserve accounts.

Unless legislators pump some of those funds to state agencies to ensure employees are paid at rates competitive with the private sector, unfilled job positions may rise, deepening a void that is already being felt by those the government is here to serve – you.

Tough competition

Compounding the loss of staff to higher-paying private sector jobs is the number of retirement-eligible staff within the department.

Since Jan. 1, 53 DEQ employees have retired.

Another 14 percent of the department’s employees are eligible for retirement, DEQ Deputy Secretary for Public Affairs Sharon Martin said in an email responding to questions from Coastal Review.

Within the next five years, 452 DEQ employees will be eligible for retirement.

“That is another reason we are so focused on addressing recruitment and retention issues,” Martin said in the email.

But that’s no easy task in what she describes as a highly competitive labor market “exacerbated by the inability to compete with market salaries.”

In fact, 36 percent of employees who have quit the department say salary was a factor in their decision to leave. More than half, 56 percent, of job offers were declined based on pay, according to information Martin provided.

“At DEQ’s current funding levels, many budgeted salaries are not competitive in the current job market, and engineers may be one of the clearest examples,” she said. “Among state agencies, DEQ has the second highest need for engineers behind only (Department of Transportation). However, market competition for engineers makes retention and recruitment particularly difficult.”

Division positions and vacancies not including American Rescue Plan Act-funded time-limited positions. Source: NCDEQ

The average and median salary for a DEQ engineer 1 is about $15,000 less than the starting salary of a N.C. State University engineer graduate. An engineer II with more than 20 years’ experience is paid “roughly the equivalent” to a fresh-out-of-college N.C. State University engineer graduate.

Martin said DEQ is taking several steps to address staffing challenges, such as bumping up salaries for 88 employees whose pay was below the minimum under the state’s compensation system; targeting retention bonuses for engineer and environmental specialists; and evaluating a multistep, department-wide plan to narrow the public-private sector pay gap for staff who meet certain education and experience qualifications.

When real wages for state employees are not keeping up with the private sector and inflation, now at a 41-year high, that makes it incredibly difficult to retain “the kind of dedicated and talented and knowledgeable public servants that we rely upon to make modern life possible,” said Patrick McHugh, research manager at the N.C. Budget & Tax Center.

“I think for all that we’ve heard about the challenges that private sector employers are experiencing with hiring people there’s been incredibly little attention paid to a similar crisis that is playing out among public sector employees, specifically state employees,” he said.

McHugh said he first saw a disparity between the loss of state, federal and local government employees when he examined data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to that data, North Carolina has lost thousands of state employees, but that’s not the case in local or federal government sectors.

Questioning whether he was looking at erroneous data, McHugh cross-referenced the bureau’s numbers with that of the N.C. Office of State Human Resources. The results were the same.

Cracks revealed

McHugh said that one of the important things to keep in mind when talking about the current decline of state employees is the pandemic.

Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic that descended on America in early 2020 unveil weaknesses in government.

Years before the pandemic, DEQ was one of the chief targets of cuts and underfunding under the administration of Gov. Pat McCrory, who was governor from 2013 to 2017.

“Even though the proportional decrease for (DEQ) employees may not be as severe as some other parts of state government, the fact that they were already barely keeping things together because of years of cuts means that those kinds of losses can be even more severe than just the pure job numbers may indicate,” McHugh said.

It’s been five years since per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, were thrust into the spotlight in North Carolina after the public was made aware that the man-made chemicals have been discharged into the Cape Fear River, the air and the ground for decades by DuPont spinoff, Chemours.

The PFAS crisis overlays other long-term issues like the impacts of climate change, further exacerbating limited staff resources.

“When those sorts of things happen, that pulls capacity away from other priorities within an institution like DEQ and when an institution like DEQ is already stretched to the limit that means that other important priorities like climate change, like other kinds of water protection, like other kinds of environmental protection, has to be sacrificed to address the new challenge that has just arisen,” McHugh said.

For DEQ staff, that means more work and longer hours.

“The result is longer lead times on some permitting processes and increased stress on our staff,” Martin said.

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