How to Recruit and Manage Short-term Workers

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State and local governments have greater reliance on temporary staff, but challenges abound. There are new ways to make these arrangements work.

Though state and local governments habitually hunger for qualified permanent workers, they are also dependent on people who can come into the workforce pool on a short-term basis to deal with staff shortages, time-limited projects, special events and unexpected needs. 

“As projects come in that exceed demand, you augment your staff with gig resources,” says Duane Schell, North Dakota’s chief technology officer. 

Schell, like his counterparts across the country, is in a field that’s increasingly dependent on people who can step in as needed or work on a project-to-project basis. The pandemic has led to more digital demands and turnover rates are high, so the need for short-term help has escalated. 

“We’re all relying on these people more dramatically than we did four or five years ago,” says Schell, who is the president of the National Association of State Technology Directors. “The demand is crazy and you’re doing whatever you can.”

While short-term workers are a fact of life in the public sector, the decline in applications and escalating turnover rates have increased their expense, particularly for positions that call for specialized skills. 

Ronald Condrey, special advisor to the director of human resources in North Carolina, says hospitals are a good example. “If they can’t hire enough registered nurses, which they can’t, they’ll hire travel nurses at a much higher rate than that of an employee registered nurse and we still can’t find enough,” he says. “It’s expensive and it’s a huge problem.”

For government employees who work alongside independent contractors, the difference in pay can be troubling. “You have pay disparity,” says Kate Sheehan, director of the Division of Personnel and Labor Relations in Alaska. “If a contractor or a contractor’s employee is making more than you for doing the same job, that’s not going to go over well.”

Another gig economy issue that can contribute to unhappiness in the full-time ranks is when contractor work appears more exciting than the day-to-day tasks expected of regular employees. Consider the circumstances when a consultant is brought in on an innovative program or external contractors build a new technological system. 

Employees will then be involved in program implementation or maintaining the system. “There’s an excitement of being involved in something new, but I think you have to balance this so your gig employees aren’t doing all the fun exciting things,” says Darin Seeley, human resources commissioner in South Dakota. “You need to find the balance of build versus run.”

Cultural issues also surface when the person sitting next to an employee who has devoted years to a department is there a brief time. “I love my coworkers,” says Sheehan. “I like seeing the people I’ve known for years. You don’t really have that, necessarily, with a contractor.”

Beyond the potential cultural issues, state and local audits have cited other problems with short-term worker hires, including lax background checks, shortcomings in drug testing, and the potential for temporary hires and independent contractors to circumvent rules in place for promoting equity and avoiding patronage. 

Audits have also revealed a lack of focus on the length of time short-term workers are likely to remain on the job. This can be a significant issue because the distinction between genuine short-term workers and those who seemingly stay on for many months or even years impacts their rights to health and pension benefits, as well as federal safety and medical leave protections that are in place for permanent workers.

2018 audit by the Office of the Inspector General looked into a temporary staffing agency contract in Miami-Dade County in Florida and found lax monitoring of the time that temporary workers stayed on the job – contrary to administrative procedure requirements spelled out by the mayor’s office. Of 651 short-term workers that the audit examined, 55% had exceeded six months on the job and 135, or 21%, had been on the job for two years, without approval oversight at six months or one year, as required. There were two individuals who had been working for the state as temporary employees for 10 years. 

The audit led to better monitoring, with a new requirement for departments to seek approval from the Office of Management and Budget before using a temporary services contract. More stringent annual human resources reporting was also implemented with new requirements to provide the names, titles and starting and ending dates of individuals. Training was put in place so that the rules for using the temporary services contract were well known to HR workers.

Solutions for Attracting Short-term Workers

States and localities that recognize the complexities of using short-term workers are finding innovative means of finding and using them. Alaska, for example, is simulating substitute teacher model by creating a cadre of temporary employees, for fields like juvenile justice, who can be called into action with little notice when needed.  

Governments generally have loosened requirements on rehiring retired workers  and that same approach can also be helpful to deal with temporary needs. Indiana, for example, recently created a classification for retired employees, allowing agencies to employ them more easily in an intermittent role at the same hourly rate they made upon their retirement. 

“They can be mentors. They can help fill potholes. They can help with regular tasks, or they can help with broader principles of organizational leadership,” says Matthew Brown, Indiana’s personnel director. There is a 180-day limit per year to the number of days a retired state employee can work.

Although Indiana only recently rolled out this program, the response from agency leaders has been enthusiastic and several retired state employees have already returned. Brown believes more retired state employees will soon take advantage – particularly because retirees will be hired back for short periods at the rate they made. 

“That’s the incentive. They know that we respect their value and we’re valuing them appropriately,” says Brown.

Though the need for short-term workers remains intense, it abated during the pandemic when the hiring of short-term workers outside of health and technological fields slowed. But, according to preliminary analysis of a recent MissionSquare Research Institute survey, it started to rise again in 2022 and was more common in states and larger local governments than in smaller entities. 

The nature of the workforce, clearly, is in a state of constant flux, and short-term employees are an important part of the mix. Taking advantage of these resources while avoiding the pitfalls is inevitably going to be a focus in the human resources field for years to come. 

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