State workforce still at critically low levels

workforce-300x180Despite four years of solid economic growth, Oklahoma’s state budget has never recovered fully from the last recession. While total state appropriations are slightly above pre-downturn levels, the FY 2015 budget is $680 million, or 7.9 percent, below FY 2009 when adjusted for inflation. Most agencies are still 15-30 percent below pre-recession funding levels.

The deep recession and continued tight funding has had an especially heavy impact on agency workforces. Most agencies were forced to cut staff during the downturn by implementing Reductions-in-Force and buyouts, or by leaving a significant number of vacant positions unfilled.  Even with slight overall budget increases the past several years, the state’s public sector workforce remains far below pre-recession levels, according to data supplied by the Office of Management and Enterprise Services.  In FY 2014, state government employed 36,470 FTE (full-time equivalent) employees. This is an increase of 628 workers, or 1.8 percent, from FY 2012, but 2,880 workers, or 7.3 percent fewer than before the state fiscal crunch hit following FY 2009. Compared to 2001, the state workforce is 1,158 employees smaller, even as Oklahoma’s population has grown by some 350,000 residents.

stateemployees01-14The Table below presents employee counts for selected years from FY 2001 – FY 2014 for state agencies with 500 or more employees in 2014 (click here for the breakdown for every state agency). Twelve of the 18 largest agencies have smaller workforces than they did in 2001, and only four have more employees than they did in 2009 (Of the four, the growth of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services is due to the consolidation of four other agencies).  The decrease in employees has been quite dramatic for many agencies, including the Tourism Department, which has 188 fewer employees (24.2 percent) than in 2009; the Tax Commission, which has shed 175 employees (19.4 percent) and the Health Department, down 256 employees (11.4 percent).


Most notable and alarming, perhaps, has been the shrinking correctional workforce. The Department of Corrections now employs 847 fewer employees than in FY 2001, and despite a slight increase in FY 2012, 784 fewer than in FY 2009.  Yet DOC houses some 4,180 more inmates in its facilities than it did in 2001 and is operating at or just below 100 percent of capacity. Just among corrections officer positions, the department has lost over 500 staff since 2001, and 340 since 2009. Meanwhile, the Office of Juvenile Affairs, the state’s juvenile justice agency, has seen its workforce shrink by 28.4 percent since 2009, a decline due only in part to the closure of the L.E. Rader Juvenile Detention Center.

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

  • Department of Agriculture: 488 employees in FY 2001, 449 in FY 2009, 388 in FY 2014;
  • Department of Labor:  103 employees in FY 2001, 95 in FY 2009, 71 in FY 2014;
  • Oklahoma Indigent Defense System:  135 employees in FY 2001,  126 in FY 2009, 101 in FY 2014
  • Department of Libraries: 103 employees in FY 2001,  95 in FY 2009,  71 in FY 2014;
  • Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA): 72 employees  in FY 2001 and FY 2009, 55 in FY 2014;
  • Department of Career and Technical Education: 387 employees in FY 2001, 329 in FY 2009, 255 in FY 2014;
  • State Department of Education: 481 employees in FY 2001, 449 in FY 2009, 295  in FY 2014 (These are the Department’s administrative employees, not school employees).

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 less dependent on state appropriations and have, in many cases, hiked fees to maintain operations.  The staff of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority has grown every year since FY 2001, and by 97 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. Employment in Higher Ed has declined slightly since 2009 but is up 15.7 percent since 2001  If higher education employment is added to all other state employees, employment has grown by 4.9 percent since FY 2001 but fallen by 4.1 percent since FY 2009. The data also excludes public school teachers, who are local employees; the number of school teachers decreased slightly since 2009.

This past legislative session brought good and bad news regarding state employment. The legislature provided funding for pay raises for some 12,000 state employees, mostly in the areas of law enforcement, corrections, nursing, social services and youth services. This will definitely help some agencies that have suffered most from high turnover and unfilled positions to recruit and retain qualified staff.

At the same time, nearly two in three state employees, some of whom have gone up to eight years without a pay increase, were excluded from the raises. This includes administrative assistants, maintenance workers, engineers, budget analysts, payroll processors, attorneys, food service workers, and many others who do the work of state government. This year’s state employee pay raise also left out school teachers and other educators, who have not had a statutory pay raise since 2007. Even more discouraging, most agencies were hit with an additional 5.5 percent cut in appropriations, which will force many to downsize their workforce even further.

Some of the reduction in the state workforce may have been manageable and even worthwhile, because technological innovations or improved productivity have allowed work to be done by fewer people. Yet years of funding cuts have greatly strained the capacities of state agencies to staff correctional facilities, inspect restaurants and nursing homes, operate state parks, investigate crimes, and perform other  core functions.  As state government shrinks ever further, its capacity to do those things upon which Oklahoma’s health, safety and prosperity depend has been seriously diminished.  

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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.

One thought on “State workforce still at critically low levels

  1. These numbers are even more dire if you look at them over a longer term. Since 1994, the state workforce (less education and higher education) has been reduced 17.56%. Over that same time period, the State population increased by 17.36% and the private sector workforce in Oklahoma has increased 26.59%. With employee pay getting farther and farther behind the private sector or comparable states, and benefits being slashed at every turn, the State of Oklahoma can no longer hold onto its workforce.

    Thus far the State has been able to continue to function on the backs of its rapidly aging workforce, but with so many hiring freezes, workforce reductions, and position eliminations there isn’t a young segment of the workforce left to replace retirees. According to the Human Capital Division of OMES, 36.2% of the current workforce will be eligible to retire by 2018.

    The State has also seen voluntary resignations soar post-recession, and now has about 10% of its workforce quitting every year. More than 50% of these voluntary resignations are by employees with 5 years or less of experience. We can’t hold on to the replacements we will so desperately need.

    This post does a good job of pointing out the losses of so many major agencies, but the smaller boards and commissions are even more vulnerable. For small boards and commissions it is not uncommon to have a staff of just a few members that have all been in their positions for several years and are all nearing retirement. When they leave, the loss of institutional knowledge could be see their whole function fail.

    This is a huge pressing problem that is not getting nearly enough attention. Thanks for bringing it up.

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