The shrinking state employee workforce

In the wake of three consecutive years of steep budget cuts, the number of state employees staffing correctional facilities, inspecting restaurants and nursing homes, serving victims of abuse and neglect, and performing other public functions has declined sharply.

Source: House of Representatives Fiscal Staff based on Office of State Finance data

In FY 2012, state government employed 35,504 Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) employees. (The FY 2012 numbers are the year-to-date average for the first nine months of the fiscal year.) This is a drop of 3,804 workers, or 9.8, percent, since FY 2009. Oklahoma’s total population has grown by some 330,000 since 2001, while the state employment has dropped by 1,633 workers, a decline of 4.4 percent.

Across 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 15 state agencies that had the largest employee count in 2001.

Source: House of Representatives Fiscal Staff based on Office of State Finance data

Ten of the fifteen largest agencies have smaller workforces than they did in FY 2001, and only two – Veterans Affairs and Rehabilitation Services – have more employees than they did in FY 2009. The decrease in state employees has been quite dramatic for many agencies, including the Tourism Department (457 fewer employees, or 43.7 percent less than in FY 2001) and the Tax Commission (350 fewer, -32 percent).

Most notable, perhaps, has been the shrinking workforce staffing correctional facilities. The Department of Corrections now employs 820 fewer employees than it did in FY 2001, and, despite a slight increase this year, 873 fewer employees than in FY 2009. Yet the Department houses some 3,000 more inmates now than it did in FY 2001 and has been operating between 67 and 75 percent staffing capacity for several years. 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. Conversely, the growth since FY 2001 in employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs relates to the opening of a new veterans care facility in Lawton in 2003.

Besides the 15 largest agencies shown above, many others are now operating with much smaller workforces than in the past (click here for the spreadsheet showing the breakdown for every state agency). Examples include:

  • State Department of Education, 482 employees in FY 2001, 449 in FY 2009, 283 in FY 2012 (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, 271 in FY 2012;
  • Oklahoma Educational Television Authority (OETA), 72 employees in FY 2001, 71 in FY 2009, 58 in FY 2012;
  • State Auditor and Inspector, 160 employees in FY 2001, 125 in FY 2009, 119 in FY 2012;
  • House of Representatives, 300 employees in FY 2001, 273 in FY 2009, 231 in FY 2012;
  • Senate, 206 employees in FY 2001, 187 in FY 2009, 149 in FY 2012.

The agencies that have been better able to weather the storm tend to be regulatory and licensing agencies such as the Banking Department 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 81 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 6,223, or 22.5 percent. The University of Oklahoma added 3,388 employees (32.5 percent), Oklahoma State University grew by 1,086 (14.9 percent) and all other colleges and universities grew by 1,740 (17.6 percent). If higher education employment is added to all other state employees, employment has grown by 5.7 percent since FY 2001 but fallen by 4.4 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.

There may certainly be some positives to the decline in the state workforce where technology or productivity gains have allowed responsibilities to be fulfilled more efficiently, unnecessary positions have been eliminated, or duplicative jobs have been consolidated. But overall, the sharp drop in state employment shows the deep strains created by the state fiscal crisis of recent years. With positions being 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. As we have said before, the question we must now face is whether years of funding cuts have shrunk state government to the point where it is no longer capable of performing 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



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.

2 thoughts on “The shrinking state employee workforce

  1. David, the depth and breadth of the loss is far greater than the burden imposed on remaining state employees. State government has lost valuable experience, leadership and knowledge of the history that preceded today’s circumstance. Regrettably, we may ultimately make the mistakes of the past over and over again because we have lost the historical context so familiar to those that have exited. I anticipate this will more likely lead to constant reinvention of the wheel rather than the development new or evolving strategies that integrate the lessons learned from our past.

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