The Connecticut State Capitol. Sean Pavone Photography

More than 4,330 state employees have retired since Jan. 1 or filed their written intention to do so, according to data released Wednesday from Comptroller Natalie Braswell’s office.

That’s nearly double the number of retirements state government has faced annually between 2019 and 2021 as a spring surge in workforce departures continues.

The latest total includes 3,084 employees who have left state service since the new year began and another 1,251 who intend to leave by July 1. The latter number could change over the next month.

“Refilling these vacancies is not only paramount to our ability to protect the critical public services we all rely on but also to ensure a strong economy that addresses the historical, racial and socio-economic gap present in Connecticut,” said Drew Stoner, spokeswoman for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition.

State government has been bracing for years for a surge in retirements this spring. 

Part of the problem stems from an aging workforce. But the driving factor involves more stringent limits on state worker retirement benefits, which take effect this July. Those changes were negotiated as part of a 2017 union concessions package that also included wage freezes and other benefit changes in exchange for temporary protection for workers against layoffs.

The bargaining coalition, which represents the majority of unionized state employees, has been pushing hard to reverse a shrinking of the state’s workforce that began more than a decade ago.

According to data obtained by the CT Mirror from the state Office of Policy and Management in late April, all Executive Branch agencies — excluding public colleges and universities — had collectively filled 25,700 of the 30,080 positions authorized for them in the state budget.

The 17% vacancy rate is almost double where it stood two years ago, when 9.4% of jobs were empty. 

But the downsizing of state government goes back well before then.

Between 2011 and 2018, the legislature and then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy relied chiefly on attrition to shrink the Executive Branch workforce by about 10% to help close several budget deficits.

Union leaders have said many state agencies faced a staffing crisis even before the latest retirement surge.

Gov. Ned Lamont, who took office in 2019, negotiated new contracts with most state employee unions this past spring that he says should help Connecticut retain more of its most experienced workers.

The agreements, which the legislature ratified in late April, include general wage increases of 2.5% for at least three years — and possibly four, depending on whether both sides reopen wage negotiations. They also include annual step raises for all but the most senior workers, one-time bonuses totaling $3.500 per full-time worker and prorated bonuses for part-timers.

Minority Republicans in the legislature criticized Lamont and his fellow Democrats over the compensation and the bonuses in particular. The GOP noted that full-time workers were allowed to accept a $2,500 bonus in May and still retire before July 1.

The second bonus, a $1,000 payment for full-timers, is set to be paid in mid-July.

The legislature also built a new safeguard into the new state budget that begins July 1 to ensure hiring remains a priority for the Executive Branch.

The legislature routinely orders the governor to find millions of dollars in savings once the fiscal year is underway, and that task often is accomplished — at least in part — by freezing many state jobs as they become vacant.

The new budget sets a savings target of $140 million for the fiscal year. But it also prohibits the administration from reducing any departmental budgets as long as the state is in the black.

Lawmakers also built a nearly $300 million cushion into the $24.2 billion budget that they approved earlier this spring for the 2022-23 fiscal year, increasing the odds that more vacant jobs can be filled.

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.