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(The Center Square) – Commissioners from several North Carolina government departments, the State Employees Association of North Carolina and others are calling on the General Assembly to better address the state’s workforce crisis.

Johnston County Republican Rep. Donna McDowell White, a retired state employee, led a press conference on Wednesday alongside representatives from SEANC, the state departments of Labor, Insurance and Agriculture, and others to call on her fellow lawmaker colleagues to do more to address severe staffing shortages across the state.

Over the last five years, the state has had a 50% reduction in applications for state employee positions, while 8.5% of state employees are now eligible to retire. Officials pointed to low pay as the primary driver for double-digit vacancy rates, citing compensation that lags behind inflation by 9.1% over the last decade and is now 14% behind market rates.

The employees association Executive Director Ardis Watkins predicted that “if we don’t get a higher raise than what’s proposed” by the House and Senate budgets, “terrible things are going to happen.”

Watkins highlighted vacancy rates in prisons at over 50%, nine month waits for autopsies, and delayed nursing home, food and bridge inspections, due to a lack of staff in various departments.

“These are very real things that are happening,” she said. “We’ve got issues that are going to lead to tragedy.”

Officials are calling on lawmakers to reconsider raises for state employees that are currently proposed at 7.5% in the House plan and 5% in the Senate plan over two years. Instead, officials are requesting a 5% raise for all state employees each year of the biennium budget, as well as “a meaningful bonus,” Watkins said.

She state has 18,000 vacant jobs, translating to a vacancy rate of 24.3%, according to data from the Office of State Human Resources. Officials said 25% of the state’s workforce is eligible to retire with full benefits in the next five years.

David Smith, chief deputy commissioner at the Department of Agriculture, said he’s worked for the department for 50 years, and “I have never seen it this bad.”

With some job classifications, the Agriculture Department cannot court a single applicant, and it currently takes about 90 days to fill a position, he said.

“In 2019, we received 22,338 applications,” Smith said. “In 2022, that number was down to 13,574.”

The Agriculture Department has a vacancy rate of 17%, and a turnover rate of 19%. Lagging pay is the biggest factor, Smith said, but other issues include unaffordable family health insurance, no clear path for career advancement, cumbersome government personnel rules, and the inability to reward workers for excellent work.

Smith and others say the high turnover is costing taxpayers significantly because of the high cost of training, staff time devoted to filling vacant positions, and time and frustrations from disruptions in services.

“What we’re trying to do is let the General Assembly know they’re already spending the money,” Watkins said.