Connecticut ranks among the states with the biggest losses of government jobs since the pandemic. Pew Charitable Trusts

The coronavirus has taken a toll on the public sector in Connecticut, driving down non-education jobs more here than in most other states, according to a new analysis from The Pew Charitable Trusts.

But opinions are mixed whether that’s a bad thing or not.

The state’s workforce already has been trimmed considerably during the decade prior to the pandemic’s outbreak in March 2020. And municipalities, which saw state aid for non-education services stagnate over that same period, also had been streamlining their workforces for a long time.

But for its relatively small geographic size, Connecticut has a significant public sector — even with the absence of county government — and many policymakers and others say government here isn’t done with belt-tightening by a long shot.

“Economies of scale are so important, and not just to businesses,” said Donald J. Klepper-Smith, an economist with DataCore Partners who was the state’s chief economic advisor in the late 2000s. “If you do not achieve economies of scale and efficiencies [in government], then you lose ground to other states. … Eventually those costs are passed on to businesses and residents.”

According to a recent analysis by Pew, government sector employment here — excluding education workers —  dropped 7.6% between July 2019 and July 2021. That ranked second-highest — behind New Mexico with an 8.5% decline — in an evaluation of 49 states. [Data from Missouri were not available.]

Education employment has been particularly unstable. It declined in most states, like numbers in nearly all job categories, during the worst of the pandemic. But then it rebounded rapidly this spring as more students returned to in-person classes, and surged again as districts geared up for aggressive summer school classes.

Nationally, non-education employment in the government sector is down 5.3% — more than 400,000 jobs — according to Pew analyst Barb Rosewicz, who also noted that declines of 5% or more were recorded in 13 other states besides Connecticut during that two-year period.

Current employment in the government sector nationally is equal to a low point just after the Great Recession, which ran from late 2007 through mid-to-late 2009.

The government-sector job loss totals here are complicated somewhat by the presence of two southeastern Connecticut gaming centers. The state Department of Labor counts jobs at both Mohegan Sun and the Foxwoods Resort Casino — employment typically not associated with government work — as part of the public sector, since they are owned and operated by sovereign tribal nations.

According to spokespeople for the respective tribes, employment at Mohegan Sun dropped from 6,875 to 4,935 between July 2019 and July 2021, and at Foxwoods it fell from about 5,400 to 2,900. Both gaming centers suspended various activities, and those numbers could change as some programs resume.

But more traditional government employment also is down. The non-education workforce across all Connecticut municipalities dropped about 2,900 positions during the pandemic, and state government’s is down another 300, according to the labor department. Federal employment here largely is unchanged.

And while job losses at the casinos aren’t good in the long run, Klepper-Smith said, state and local taxpayers would be better served if governments learn to function without replacing all of these jobs. 

Gov. Ned Lamont hopes to shrink the state’s workforce even more over the next few years by taking advantage of a projected surge of thousands of additional employee retirements while using technology to make services more efficient.

The governor hired Boston Consulting Group last September to oversee an ongoing project, ordered by the legislature, to eventually cut personnel costs by $500 million annually by the mid-2020s.

But some warn that downsizing is more complicated.

University of Connecticut economist Fred Carstensen, who runs the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, said some of those jobs lost during the pandemic may be badly needed.

“Government provides some really critical services,” he said, noting that many health care and social service workers in the government sector retired or resigned during the pandemic because of the risks to their personal health.

And while Connecticut has a significant government sector relative to its size, it also has some of the poorest urban centers in the country.

Carstensen also noted that Connecticut has much greater wealth and economic output than many other states, and our high quality of life is attractive to many businesses.

“Attrition is a real cause for alarm at a time when the demand for public services is skyrocketing because of the pandemic,” said Jody Barr, executive director of Council 4 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.

Connecticut’s largest union representing public-sector workers, with more than 29,000 municipal and state employees among its members, Council 4 has been sounding the alarm for years as government workforces have been reduced to help balance budgets.

Between 2011 and 2018, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the General Assembly reduced the state’s Executive Branch workforce by about 10%. And nonpartisan analysts and unions had warned of insufficient staff in major departments, including Transportation and Correction, even before that period.

“A state as wealthy as ours should be leading, not lagging, when it comes to providing quality public services that are critical to a flourishing middle-class economy,” Barr said.

He added that the Pew study is “a reminder that we need to fix Connecticut’s regressive tax system, which favors the ultra-wealthy and corporations while encouraging disinvestment in our local communities.”

Advocates for cities and towns also warned that communities froze many jobs over the past two years in an effort to ensure budgets could be balanced without property tax hikes in a fragile economy.

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said that while communities appreciate additional non-education aid in the new two-year state budget, most aid not tied to schools had been flat, or shrinking, for at least a decade prior to that.

“It just put additional pressure on towns to rein in non-education expenses and personnel,” meaning the workforce in many local police, fire, public works and land use offices was lean even before the pandemic.

“We get to a point where government can’t function efficiently, and I think we’re seeing that in some places,” added Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.