As DeSantis touts governing chops, state of Florida has thousands of open jobs

Statistics show key state agencies have been operating with 1 in 4 jobs unfilled, as workers lament constant turnover.
While the problem of understaffing in state government predates Gov. Ron DeSantis and was worsened by the pandemic, critics said he shares blame for the thousands of empty jobs.
While the problem of understaffing in state government predates Gov. Ron DeSantis and was worsened by the pandemic, critics said he shares blame for the thousands of empty jobs. [ ARTIE WALKER JR. | AP ]
Published June 8, 2023|Updated June 13, 2023

While Gov. Ron DeSantis tours the country asking voters to look to Florida as proof of his results-oriented governing style, extensive worker shortages are quietly hobbling some of the regular functions of his state government.

As of October last year, 28 of 29 state agencies had percentages of vacant positions in the double digits, according to statistics obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through a public records request. In some crucial departments — the Department of Education, Department of State, Agency for Persons with Disabilities and the Department of Elder Affairs — about 1 in 4 jobs were open. The Department of Veterans Affairs was hollower, with 39% of positions empty as the agency deals with nursing shortages and staffs up two new nursing homes.

Federal data shows that employees left Florida’s state government at a much higher rate in recent years than the national average and the state has significantly lagged behind in spending federal dollars designed to help mitigate the exodus.

While the problem predates DeSantis and was worsened by the pandemic, critics said he shares blame for the thousands of empty jobs. The issue also serves as a test case for how DeSantis handles a dilemma within his own executive branch — at a time when he’s seeking the most powerful executive office in the country.

More than a dozen current and former state employees who spoke to the Times from nine different agencies described an environment of overwhelmed departments with ballooning caseloads as workers pick up the duties of vacant positions around them. They said that Florida’s state government exists in a constant state of turnover, where some frustrated employees never come back from lunch breaks and new hires quit during training because they found higher pay digging holes for telephone lines.

The shortages have posed a safety threat in state prisons, made it harder for hurricane victims to reach a home insurance hotline and, according to some workers and officials, made the government less efficient as new hires have to complete costly training programs or the state pays a premium for contractors to fill in the gaps.

DeSantis pushed for 5% raises for state employees this year and last, his office noted.

Yet the stubbornly low wages, coupled with Florida’s quickly rising cost of living, has meant state employees who evaluate applications from needy Floridians sometimes qualify for the same public assistance they approve for others.

Several said turnover is worse now than they’ve ever seen.

“The morale here is at an all-time low,” said Paul Whittingham, who trains new hires at the Northeast Florida State Hospital near Jacksonville, where he has worked for more than 22 years.

In addition to the raises, this year’s budget will include more than $96.4 million for agencies to adjust the pay of “hard-to-hire” positions, DeSantis’ office said.

“Despite vacancies across the board, we have managed an extraordinarily efficient government, highlighting that a lean government managed by Gov. DeSantis can deliver critical services and functions for residents,” DeSantis spokesperson Jeremy Redfern said.

Reginald Brady, a 29-year veteran with the Department of Children and Families and a senior child protective investigator, said he’s concerned by one tactic the state has used to try to fill positions: lowering hiring requirements. While a bachelor’s degree used to be required for child protective investigators, he said he’s now seeing people get hired with an associate’s degree plus two years of job experience in unrelated industries — like working at a restaurant.

“It’s putting families in jeopardy because you don’t have the same type of qualifications or training,” Brady said.

In response to emailed questions, Mallory McManus, deputy chief of staff at the Department of Children and Families, said that all child protective investigators undergo more than 300 hours of training prior to entering the field, then must pass additional hurdles before becoming certified.

She said that the educational requirements of child protective investigators were changed last year as part of an initiative led by first lady Casey DeSantis to recruit more veterans, military spouses and former law enforcement officers into these jobs.

“Quite frankly the insinuation that we do not train our employees or hire candidates that are unqualified is unfounded and false,” McManus said.

“A broken government”

In a half-empty committee room in the Florida Senate early last year, the then-secretary of the Florida Department of Management Services showed lawmakers chart after chart with steep drop-off curves representing the number of state employees. (That secretary, Todd Inman, has since left state government.)

Leaders from five different agencies approached the lectern to describe how the pandemic had exacerbated the state’s issues with attracting and keeping staff, as workers nationwide searched for better pay. Vacancies in some parts of the government had doubled. Overtime was skyrocketing.

“Salary is not everything, but it’s close to it in this business,” Department of Corrections Secretary Ricky Dixon said. The state was short more than 5,800 correctional officers, he said, and the office of the inspector general, in charge of investigating potential fraud and misconduct within the agency, was losing people.

To keep order in prisons, the state has relied for months on the Florida National Guard.

Meanwhile, shortages within the Department of Financial Services contributed to the state reducing the hours of its home insurance hotline to just three hours a day, at the same time calls were surging from Hurricane Ian.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said her staff is still helping people struggling to get through to the state’s beleaguered unemployment system, years after it first crashed during the pandemic. Her office has also heard from Floridians experiencing delays in getting approved for food stamps or Medicaid, she said.

“Those basic fundamentals of good, efficient, direct government — nonexistent,” Eskamani said. “That’s indicative of DeSantis’ priorities. … He cares about the optics, not the basic functions of government. When that happens, of course you’re going to have a broken government with overworked employees.”

As of October 2022, nine months after that January Senate presentation, the vacancy rates only got worse in the majority of Florida’s agencies.

“It’s not just one area of government. It’s all over, it’s pervasive,” former state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, said in a recent interview.

When asked how much responsibility DeSantis bears for the vacancies, Brandes was direct.

“After five years at this junction, it’s squarely in his lap — this is an executive function,” he said.

James Baiardi, president of the state corrections chapter of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said the staffing crisis in Florida prisons is probably worse than ever. But he praised DeSantis, saying he has taken the issue more seriously than many of his Republican predecessors.

“There’s no miracle worker out there that can fix problems that have been brewing for 10 years in a year or two,” Baiardi said, adding that DeSantis has made a point to raise correctional officers’ starting pay. “I don’t think you find a governor that’s better for the state employees.”

How Florida compares

Florida has the lowest state worker-to-resident ratio in the country, according to the 2022 presentation by Inman, the former Department of Management Services secretary.

Between February 2020 and last November, Florida lost nearly 7% of its government employees, compared to an average loss of half a percentage point nationally. That’s according to federal data analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., that advocates for low- and middle-income workers.

As of December, the most recent figures available, Florida spent less than the national average — about 11% — of the money it received from the federal government that was earmarked for, among other things, the hiring of public-sector workers.

Texas spent nearly 58% of its funding.

“The question is, ‘How seriously does the government take the task?’ If your government is committed to rebuilding the public sector, you’ll make the investment,” said Dave Kamper, a senior state policy coordinator with the Economic Policy Institute.

DeSantis’ office said it is “proud” of its decision not to use this federal pot of money for state worker raises, and pointed to the “historic response to Hurricane Ian” as proof the government works as it should.

“Florida took a policy position that we would not use temporary financial assistance from the federal government to support recurring, long-term salary increases for state workers,” Redfern wrote, adding that the raises have come out of state funds. “Efficient government does not require government expansion.”

One result of the high turnover, many workers said, is that the quality and experience of management has decreased, leading to work environments with less professionalism and more favoritism.

Some employees are “at the point where they become sick, they have to go to … counseling because of the distress, the anxiety,” said Althera Johnson, who worked nearly 28 years mostly in the Department of State, until she left last year. “They are stressed out because of the workload. They are stressed out because of management.”

A few workers interviewed by the Times said new laws pushed by DeSantis could make their jobs harder, including one that may threaten the future certification of the largest union of state employees. Nate Francis, a probation officer with the Department of Juvenile Justice in Miami, said he’s concerned about the permitless carry law leading to more guns in the neighborhoods where he visits kids.

Lizette Krings, who has worked for the Department of Health for 18 years, said she expects the law banning most abortions after six weeks will lead to more low-income mothers seeking help from the nutritional food program she works for in Miami. The law is not currently in effect, but the Florida Supreme Court, which has five DeSantis appointees, is expected to greenlight it later this year.

“It feels like we’re reverting back, we’re regressing,” Krings said.

Political departures

While low pay and high workload were consistently cited as the main causes of turnover, there have been anecdotes of people leaving DeSantis’ administration because of politics.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, for example, has been tasked by DeSantis with investigating voter fraud. Its former bureau chief, Louis Sloan, told The Washington Post that DeSantis has politicized the department.

Sloan retired two years earlier than planned, according to The Post, because of turnover and the highly publicized arrests of former felons who improperly voted. Many of them thought they could vote because they were issued voter registration cards.

Earlier this year, court documents revealed that an analyst at the Agency for Health Care Administration objected internally when the state recommended against Medicaid coverage for treatment of gender dysphoria, saying the agency did not follow the standard procedure.

His email was met with a note of thanks from a supervisor, the documents showed. But the analyst, Jeffrey English, resigned earlier this year, the agency confirmed. Attempts to reach English were unsuccessful. The agency has not yet complied with a public records request for his personnel file.

Perhaps the most well-known departure was that of former Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees. He was hardly seen for months during the pandemic after he said that Floridians may have to socially distance and wear masks until vaccines became widely available. Now a professor at Brown University, Rivkees sometimes writes op-eds opposing health policies promoted by his old boss in Florida.

The most recent of those was published just this month.

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Lawrence Mower and Times staff writer Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.