State workforce stabilizes but remains well below pre-downturn levels

After three straight years of steep drops, the total number of state government employees edged up in FY 2013. However, the number of state workers staffing correctional facilities, inspecting restaurant and nursing homes, serving victims of abuse and neglect, and performing other public functions remains far below pre-downturn peaks and even below levels of twelve years ago.

In FY 2013, state government employed 35,605 FTE (full-time equivalent) employees, according to data supplied by the Office of Management and Personnel Services. This is an increase of 61 FTE, or 0.2 percent, compared to FY 2012, but 3,745 employees, or 9.5 percent fewer than before the state fiscal crunch that hit following FY 2009. Compared to 2001, the state workforce is 1,534 employees smaller, even as the state’s population has grown by some 330,000 people.

stateemployees01-13Across state government, changes in the size of the workforce have varied considerably depending on legislative decisions and the availability of other revenue sources, such as federal funds, fees, or non-appropriated state revenues. The table below presents annual employee counts for the agencies with 500 or more employees in 2013 (click here for the breakdown for every state agency).


Eleven of the 17 largest agencies have smaller workforces than they did in FY 2001, and only three have more employees than they did in FY 2009 (Of the three, the growth of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services is a result of consolidation of four other agencies, while the Department of Veterans Affairs grew with the opening of a new veterans care facility in Lawton in 2003. The third is the Department of Rehabilitative Services). The decrease in state employees has been quite dramatic for many agencies, including the Tourism Department (466 fewer employees, or 44.6 percent less than in FY 2001) and the Tax Commission (386 fewer, -35.1 percent).

Most notable, perhaps, has been the shrinking correctional workforce. The Department of Corrections now employs 832 fewer employees than in FY 2001, and, despite a slight increase last year, 768 fewer than in FY 2009. Yet the Department houses some 3,500 more inmates now than it did in FY 2001 and is operating at close to 100 percent of inmate capacity, while facilities are staffed at under 65 percent of authorized employees. Meanwhile, the Office of Juvenile Affairs, the state’s juvenile justice agency, has 376 fewer employees than in FY 2001, due in part to the closure of the Rader facility.

Besides the 15 largest agencies shown above, many others are now operating with much smaller workforces than in the past. Examples include:

  • State Department of Education, 482 employees in FY 2001, 449 in FY 2009, 289 in FY 2013 (These are the Department’s administrative employees, not school employees);
  • Department of Career and Technology Education, 387 employees in FY 2001, 330 in FY 2009, 260 in FY 2013;
  • Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA), 72 employees in FY 2001, 71 in FY 2009, 57 in FY 2013;
  • Department of Libraries, 74 employees in FY 2001, 57 in FY 2009, 46 in FY 2013;
  • Indigent Defense System, 135 employees in FY 2001, 126 in FY 2009, 100 in FY 2013
  • Labor Department, 103 employees in FY 2001, 95 in FY 2009, 76 in FY 2013

The agencies that have been better able to weather the storm tend to be regulatory and licensing agencies, such as the Banking Department, Corporation Commission, or Board of Nursing, that are funded largely or fully through fees.  The staff of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority has grown every year since FY 2001, and by 85 percent overall, thanks to additional federal dollars and dedicated state revenue sources.

The total numbers above exclude employees in the higher education system, who are subject to a different set of employment rules than state employees. Since FY 2001, employment in all public higher education institutions has increased by 3,887, or 14.1 percent.  If higher education employment is added to all other state employees, employment has grown by 4.1 percent since FY 2001 but fallen by 5.8 percent since FY 2009. The data also excludes public school teachers, who are local employees; the number of school teachers has also decreased since 2009.

Compounding  the challenges created by a smaller workforce is the fact that many state employees have gone without pay increases for the past seven years. Stagnating paychecks increase staff turnover, make it harder to fill vacancies, and force many lower-paid state employees, especially correctional officers, to work multiple jobs and rely on public benefits to make ends meet. Once again this past legislative session, the legislature failed to approve either across-the-board raises or targeted pay hikes for groups such as state troopers or prison guards; instead, the Office of Management and Enterprise Services is conducting a study of state employee pay.

The sharp drop in state employment shows the ongoing strains created by the state fiscal crisis of recent years. With positions having been eliminated and vacancies remaining unfilled, fewer state employees are left to shoulder greater responsibilities. This can have serious consequences for the Oklahomans whose safety, health, and welfare it is the mission of public employees to promote and protect. The unfortunate conclusion is that years of funding cuts have shrunk state government to the point where its capacity to perform the core functions that Oklahomans expect – educating our children, training our workforce, maintaining our infrastructure, protecting our communities, and aiding our most vulnerable family members and neighbors – may have been permanently diminished. 


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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