Must we wait?

High employee vacancy rate causes slow service at the DMV and other state agencies

Standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles office on Broadway can take more than an hour.

Standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles office on Broadway can take more than an hour.

Given a choice these days, many people would rather face the dentist’s chair than a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Both usually involve some pain, but at least at the dentist you seldom have to wait for what seems like a lifetime to get your misery. Waiting in long lines has become as much a part of the DMV experience as taking a driving test, and for some people that is just no longer acceptable.

“Making people wait for so long in line is just shameful,” says Jim Hard, civil service director of the California State Employees Association (CSEA). “It makes people frustrated with government. It seems more and more like a setup by politicians to foster an anti-government attitude, an attitude that is incorrectly directed at the people working in public service and not the politicians who have created the situation.”

The situation Hard speaks of is the high number of vacancies in state jobs, a situation many feel has reached crisis proportions. According to a CSEA study of the State Controller’s records, several state departments have double-digit vacancy rates, and Hard says the fallout is beginning to affect public service.

Melinda Walters won’t disagree.

“I’ve been here almost an hour and I’m not really even close to being done yet,” she says from her place in line at the Carmichael DMV office. People here without appointments have to take a number and wait, and for Walters it doesn’t look good. They are calling 127, and she holds a ticket marked 148. All she can do now is to sigh and take her place in the crowd to wait her turn.

There was a 10 percent clerical position vacancy rate at the DMV in 2000. That’s better than the 15.6 percent rate among the rest of the state’s clerical service workers, but still not enough to do the job without long waits and backlogs. It does not end in the lower ranks. In the Department of Justice, there are 246 professional position vacancies, and the Department of Transportation (CalTrans) has another 346.

The problem is even worse inside California’s prisons and state mental hospitals. According to the CSEA, the Department of Corrections has almost 500 unfilled teaching positions, while just less than 25 percent of the state nursing jobs are vacant. Napa State Hospital alone has a 39 percent vacancy rate.

But what do all of these numbers mean to the public? Not much, unless you happen to be someone who is trying to get services from a department that is woefully understaffed and overworked. Understaffing also causes problems aside from long waits in line. Delays in processing driver’s licenses and vehicle registration, backlogs in nursing home inspections, and months-long hold-ups in responses to consumer requests and complaints are all byproducts of shortened staffs.

DMV has been particularly hard hit by the vacancies.

“We are anywhere from six months to a year behind in some licensing and registrations,” says Miguel Escobedo, who has manned the mail machines at the downtown DMV for 20 years. “This causes a lot of stress with the employees. People are overworked, and we end up with very high turnover. We are pushing people to the max.”

By the end of calendar year 2000 in California, almost 800 vacancies existed in the DMV. The lack of workers hasn’t slowed the growth of work, however, as the number of registered vehicles in our state grew from 26 million to 28.5 million during the year. The workload has lead to mandatory overtime for many, something which won’t end without increased staffing.

But why is it this way? Not surprisingly, money is the main culprit. California paid out more than $600 million in overtime in 2000, which is still an acceptable figure to many when compared to the costs of maintaining a vacancy rate more along the normal lines of 5 percent. Overtime certainly costs more money for that specific employee, but those costs are still minimal compared to paying for additional workers who require health-care benefits and payroll taxes. It is also an old trick among departmental managers to avoid filling positions and then using those funds to help balance their annual budgets.

“The practice of carrying over budgeted positions from year to year has become a common way of funding unanticipated expenses in many departments,” says CSEA president, Perry Kenny. “Keeping these vacancies open also allows department managers to support their favorite functions while under-funding others.”

Wages also play a part in the vacancies. While salaries for state service have sometimes lagged behind similar positions in the private sector—particularly in hot ticket jobs like information technology—the employee benefits package offered by the state of California was the ace in the hole for attracting quality workers.

Yet over the last decade, that package has diminished substantially, with much higher employee costs than ever before. Annual cost-of-living allowances, once taken for granted by state workers, have also slowed significantly. This is a hard hit, especially in high cost-of-living areas like Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Hard says compensation is a very real problem, but he feels there is more to it than just dollars and cents. He says there is also an undercurrent of backlash against state workers started by former Governor Pete Wilson that has continued under the current Gray Davis administration.

“I believe this was a conscious effort on the part of Pete Wilson to create this,” says Hard. “Wilson wanted a lower body count, no matter what the consequences. Sadly, the Davis administration has taken no real steps to fix the problem.”

The Governor’s Press Office declined comment on that point, referring questions to the Department of Personnel Administration. Department spokeswoman Lynette Jolley says that while the problem definitely exists, the CSEA is placing the blame on the wrong doorstep.

“We are trying everything we can to come up with innovative ways for state employees to maintain their standard of living,” says Jolley. “Since April of 1999, state workers have received pay raises of 13 percent and greater benefits.”

Jolley says part of the problem is not just finding bodies to fill the vacancies, but locating quality people to fill these open positions.

“Every department is trying to recruit and fill their vacancies,” she says. “But we are at the beginning of the baby boomers retiring, and like every other employer, the state is competing for a group of employees who are retiring at one end of the spectrum and very new at the other.”

Typically it is the public caught in between the wrangling of the two sides, and the fallout often comes in places we don’t think of at first. Ramifications from a lack of teachers and nurses in our correctional and mental care facilities, for example, might take years to realize.

“We all lose when teachers in the prisons and other institutions are not in place to educate inmates who are eventually released back into society,” says CSEA’s Kenny. “An educated convict has a chance to land an honest job. A convict whose education has suffered because of inadequate teaching levels in prison is more likely to return to a life of crime upon release.”

While everyone agrees there is a problem, the two sides have yet to agree on a solution. With union contracts running out and new ones now being negotiated, the two sides have at least started talking about how to solve this dilemma.

For people like Melinda Walters, and others in line at the DMV, the solution can’t come soon enough.