6 Steps Public Employers Can Take to Retain Workers

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Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | State and local governments are teetering on the brink of a workforce crisis. But there are actions leaders can employ to prevent workers from walking out the door.

Public sector staffing shortages caused by the Covid-19 pandemic continue to increase. Despite the most recent job numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing an increase of approximately 24,000 state and local government jobs from January 2022 to February 2022, total employment by state and local governments is still down by nearly 650,000 since the start of the pandemic.

Public sector workers face unrelenting stress, burnout, anxiety and compassion fatigue. Simultaneously, workers are reevaluating the intersection of their personal and professional priorities leading many to decide to leave their jobs altogether. 

New findings from a MissionSquare Research Institute survey of 1,100 state and local government workers reveal that 52% are considering voluntarily leaving their jobs due to Covid-19 either to change jobs, to retire or to leave the workforce entirely. Essentially, if you’re a public sector employee and you’re not considering leaving your job, then the person sitting next to you is. 

The same study found that six in 10 survey respondents reported that their organization has experienced an increase in the number of people leaving their jobs voluntarily in the last two years. Respondents most frequently attribute these departures to the added stress people are experiencing from the pandemic, concerns about contracting Covid at work, and people rethinking what they want to do.  

And when employees do leave, it has a reverberating impact on those who remain. Seventy-eight percent of those surveyed reported that the increase in the number of people leaving voluntarily has put a strain on their workload. 

So, what can employers do to stem these departures and instead instill a sense of pride and excitement about working in state and local government? Here are six strategies:

1. Increase compensation: State and local government employees surveyed reported that their top recommendations for improving retention were salary increases and offering bonuses. Employers can consider how they can increase compensation, whether utilizing recent federal funds and increased tax and fee revenues, repurposing existing funds or pursuing other options. 

2. Show appreciation and recognition: Nearly four in 10 respondents surveyed suggested that employers could improve retention by showing more appreciation and recognition of employees and the work they do. It is important for employers to recognize the ways in which employees have gone above and beyond in their jobs during the pandemic, and take actions to demonstrate that appreciation (e.g., provide more flexibility in schedule, write personalized thank you notes to employees, acknowledge individuals at team meetings, showcase staff in the community). 

3. Provide financial wellness resources: With many employees taking on additional debt and/or spending emergency funds to make ends meet during the pandemic, workers are looking to their employer for programs and resources that can help their financial health. Employers could explore the possibility of offering programs that help set aside money from one’s paycheck into an emergency savings fund, automatically increase contribution amounts to a secondary retirement savings plan every year up to a preset maximum, automatically enroll employees into a supplemental retirement savings plan and offer free online financial wellness resources.  

4. Prioritize employee safety and mental health: Employees are feeling stressed, burned out and anxious while at work due to the pandemic. And many are concerned about exposure to Covid-19 while working in person. Employers could implement safety measures to reduce this stress and anxiety and provide emotional support (e.g., respect, acknowledgment, encouragement or employee assistance programs) to improve morale and productivity. 

5. Emphasize employee impact on community: Nearly six in 10 public sector employees surveyed reported that they value serving their community during this difficult time. Employers can emphasize the critical role that these workers are playing in making a difference in their communities and in keeping essential services and programs running across the country. This can help both in retaining existing staff and appealing to job candidates who are seeking meaningful employment. 

6. Foster employee development and succession planning: State and local governments face a wave of older workers reaching retirement age. To preserve institutional knowledge and maximize retention of remaining staff, employers could prioritize training, mentoring, and job rotation opportunities to develop talent and leadership potential throughout the organization. 

The current wave of employee departures will have a significant impact on the ability of states and localities to offer critical services and programs across the country. The time for employers to act is now. There is a wealth of resources for employers to leverage that will help rejuvenate and retain current public sector employees as well as recruit a talented, diverse, mission-driven workforce of the future. 

Rivka Liss-Levinson is senior research manager at MissionSquare Research Institute, a nonprofit focused on public sector retirement benefits, health and wellness, along with workforce demographics and skill set needs.

NEXT STORY: NYC Employees Eyeing the Exits as Mayor Insists on In-person Work

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