RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – As North Carolina lawmakers meet privately to finalize a new state budget, some state workers say they’re concerned staffing shortages will cause them to further reduce key services they provide.
Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler (R) has urged the legislature to provide significant raises as his agency and many others in state government grapple with a historic challenge in hiring and retaining employees.
The agency is responsible for a wide variety of research and testing aimed at protecting consumers, such as sampling food for bacteria and testing dead animals for emerging diseases.
That work is done in Raleigh at the Steve Troxler Agricultural Sciences Center, that opened in late 2021, and houses several laboratories. But, employees at the agency say they can’t put the facility and its equipment to its full use because they can’t hire enough people.
“It’s extremely frustrating. It’s frustrating that the state invested in building this state-of the-art laboratory,” said Reagan Converse, laboratory director of the Food and Drug Protection Division. “We’ve invested millions of dollars in state-of-the-art equipment, but we don’t have the people to run them.”
She pointed to a room that’s set up to do testing on milk and pointed out it’s only being used for storage.
Converse said since 2021, everyone who has turned down a job offer has cited the salary. In the past five years, she said 62 percent of positions have been vacant at least once.
“It’s only getting worse for us, being able to bring in new people,” she said. “We’re not going to be able to perform many of the services that we’re currently performing if we continue down this road.”
Across state government, the vacancy rate was about 23 percent as of March, according to the Office of State Human Resources. Additionally, one out of four people currently working for the state will be eligible to retire with full benefits in the next five years.
It’s a challenge facing a wide variety of industries, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Addressing the staffing shortages in state government is one of the critical issues facing lawmakers as they try to reach an agreement on a budget plan for the next two years.
Republicans in the Senate proposed 4.5 percent raises on average for state workers over two years. The Republican-controlled House proposed 7.5 percent. There would also be funding for agencies to offer more money for the hardest-to-fill positions.
While leaders of the State Employees Association of North Carolina described the situation as a “crisis” this week, Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) said he doesn’t view it that way.
“We’re getting into an age where everything is a crisis, everything is apocalyptic,” he said. “I don’t see it as a crisis. I see it as an issue we need to deal with, and we will deal with it.”
In the veterinary diagnostic lab at the agricultural sciences center, Dr. Jim Trybus said the staffing shortages have had a significant impact on day-to-day operations.
He said they had to temporarily close two branch offices in other parts of the state. His lab is responsible for testing dead animals for emerging diseases.
“That puts those areas at risk for delay in a diagnosis of a high-consequence or infectious animal disease,” he said.
He pointed to a part of his lab that’s equipped to help the NC Wildlife Commission with detecting chronic wasting disease among deer. But, he said the technology goes unused because of staffing.
He’s concerned about the ability of his employees to continue taking on a higher workload because of the challenge in filling positions.
“They’re working long hours. They’re working weekends, staying late and they’re experiencing burnout,” he said. “We’re going to have to start discontinuing more tests and limiting our services.”