Gov. Mark Gordon and policy director Renny Mackay prepare to address the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee on June 15, 2021 in Cheyenne. (Joel Funk/WyoFile)

The Wyoming state government is struggling to attract and retain enough qualified employees to accomplish the state’s work and meet its obligations, according to recent reports by the Department of Administration and Information.

A WyoFile analysis of state data found that turnover rates at nearly half of Wyoming’s executive branch agencies at least doubled between 2010 and  2021. For seven of those agencies, fiscal year 2020-2021 brought their highest recorded turnover rates in over a decade. 

“We are hemorrhaging talent and experience,” Gov. Mark Gordon told the Joint Appropriations Committee in early December. Gordon is asking the Legislature to increase compensation for state workers who are paid, on average, 19.4% below market value. 

“If you want to run government more like a business, then I guess you have to run it more like a business,” Gordon told the committee.  

Wyoming’s private sector has long struggled to attract and keep workers. The data and testimony now suggest that once sought-after public sector jobs have also lost their competitive edge. Employee survey results overwhelmingly point to compensation as the culprit. And as Wyoming’s aging workforce nears the “retirement cliff”, the younger people the state is expecting to fill openings are the very ones the state is struggling to retain. 

Employer of choice

When Electrical Trades Supervisor Damian Garibay entered the profession 23 years ago “state jobs were sought after by everybody,” he said. 

In early December, Garibay shared his story with the Joint Appropriations Committee as part of a budget presentation by the Department of Administration and Information. Garibay’s position is housed within that department, which also provides administrative, fiscal and human resource services to some of the state’s other agencies.   

Garibay described a changing reality to lawmakers. Two decades ago, he said, a job with the state as a tradesman was coveted because of the pay, benefits and retirement. Now, he said he and his colleagues feel “looked down upon and unappreciated.” He also said they’re underpaid, and as a result, his department has lost its ability to recruit talent. 

Electrical Trades Supervisor Damian Garibay gives testimony during a Joint Appropriations Committee meeting on Dec. 2, 2021. (Screenshot/Wyoming Legislature)

“It seems no one wants to work for the state anymore,” he told the committee, pointing to one electrical position opening that had not received a single application in the three months since it was posted. 

The Department of A&I has come to a similar conclusion as Garibay. In a report, it said that the state of Wyoming has long considered itself an “employer of choice,” and that the state “could rely on it’s stability and benefits to attract and keep top talent.” The A&I report attributed decreased interest in state jobs to “generational differences to some degree,” but more so “to other areas falling further behind, such as the compensation package.”

Garibay said during his testimony that to make ends meet all three of the electricians in his department do additional gigs on the side. They’re not an exception in the state employee pool, either. 

In August 2021, the state published the results of an employee survey. When asked if their current compensation plan supported them and/or their family, 39% of respondents said they had to have a second job, while 3% said they currently rely on some sort of public assistance, such as SNAP. 

The survey was developed as part of Gordon’s pandemic recovery plan, also known as Wyoming’s Strategy to Strive, Drive, and Thrive Initiative. Recognizing the ongoing retention issue, the survey was intended to “solicit feedback from employees who have stood by the State of Wyoming during tough times,” according to the Department of A&I, and to “help direct efforts as they relate to reshaping retention strategies and modernizing recruitment efforts.”

About 4,300 respondents participated in the anonymous survey, roughly half of the eligible workforce. Compensation issues were some of the most common and the most glaring — even when not asked directly about pay. For example, when asked about improving work-life balance, “many of the responses cited an increase in wages or more regular pay adjustments.” More specifically, some pointed to the amount of overtime needed to work to make ends meet, while others described, “the anxiety of not being able to pay bills on time.”

There were also questions related to finding other work. More than half of respondents said they are either casually or actively looking for employment elsewhere. The survey revealed this to be especially acute for less experienced state employees. Over 60% of respondents with 1-5 years experience responded that they are looking for employment elsewhere. The same was true for 66% of those with 5-10 years experience, and 62% of those with 10-20 years. The report pointed to these particular findings as a looming issue in the not so distant future. 

“The state has to start planning for succession as the retirement cliff draws near,” according to the report. “In fact those expected to fill these upcoming vacancies are looking for employment elsewhere.”

Yearly employee turnover at the state of Wyoming has been on an upward trend for the last decade or so. In 2011, it was at a 10-year-low of 12.6%. It has since grown to a rate of 18.1%. (Screenshot/Dept. of Administration and Information)

Turnover data breakdown

Each year, the Department of A&I puts together a Workforce Report, which details data points such as pay, employee counts, average pay rates by gender, and how long certain agencies take to fill vacancies. It also tracks turnover rates — the rate at which each agency loses employees. That is calculated by dividing the average number of employees over a fiscal year by the total amount of separations. 

Overall, employee turnover at the state of Wyoming has been on an upward trend for the last decade or so. In 2011, it was at a 10-year-low of 12.6%. It has since grown to a rate of 18.1%.

The annual reports track turnover rates at 53 state agencies under the executive branch. An analysis by WyoFile found that 22 of those agencies saw their turnover rates double or more between 2010 and fiscal year 2020-2021. Those included: The Department of Administration and Information, Attorney General, the Board of Geologists, Board of Parole, Cosmetology Board, Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, Department of Health, Department of Revenue and Taxation, the District Attorney of Laramie County, Military Department, Office of Administrative Hearing, Oil and Gas Commission, Pharmacy Board, Public Defender, Public Service Commission, Real Estate Commision, State Auditor’s Office, State Construction Department, State Engineer, State Parks and Cultural Resources, and Wyoming Retirement. 

The Attorney General, Cosmetology Board, Department of Revenue and Taxation, Office of Administrative Hearing, Pharmacy Board, Public Defender, and Real Estate Commission all experienced their highest turnover rates in more than a decade. 

A handful of other departments that did not experience exceptional highs because dysfunctionally high turnover had already become the norm. The Department of Corrections hovered between 18 to 20% for most of the last decade, while the Department of Health rose above 30% three times out of the last four years. At the State Treasurer’s Office, turnover rate was said to have contributed to incomplete forecasting data for this January’s CREG report

“Simply put, compensation is not competitive; no one wants these jobs at the current rate, including benefits,” according to a Compensation Facts report put together by the A&I Department at the request of the Joint Appropriation Committee. 

Gordon’s plan

Gov. Gordon has made salary increases a high priority in his budget proposal, asking the Legislature for an additional $53 million for employee compensation. That would not just include pay adjustments for executive branch agencies, but also members of the judicial branch as well as educational positions. 

However, the request does not equate to raising employee pay across the board, or all at once. According to the Department of A&I, the state would need to spend almost $98 million a year in order to bring every classified employee in its workforce up to 2020 market rates. 

“Executive Branch pay has fallen so far behind that requesting a move to 2020 market rates for all employees has become unrealistic,” according to a Compensation Facts report prepared by the Department of A&I. 

As a result, Gordon has instead asked for a two-step process. First, it would adjust pay tables to 2020 market rates. That would not raise compensation rates immediately for all workers, but would change the range of pay the state has to work with when determining individual compensation. For about a quarter of employees, it would raise the minimum amount in their paytable. 

Secondly, Gordon’s plan would implement a market merit matrix, which is said to “reward high performers who are further behind the market and slow down those who are above market.”

“It seems no one wants to work for the state anymore.”

Damian Garibay

Same job, different state 

Potential raises will come too late for the many workers that have left jobs, or the state entirely. That includes Eli Ellis, 30, who left his post as trooper for the Wyoming Highway Patrol in 2021. 

“I just went to another state to become a state trooper,” said Ellis, who now works in Maine. Part of his and his wife’s decision to leave Wyoming had to do with being closer to family as they were expecting their first child. But Ellis said if some things had been different at work — such as pay — that it would have encouraged him to stay in a state that was a good fit for his family. Ellis said they are dedicated hunters with two bird dogs, and a strong appetite for skiing and hiking. Plus, his wife is a teacher and the quality of the school system had also motivated the young family to come get jobs here about four years ago. 

“The people of Wyoming are probably some of the best people to serve and work with,” said Ellis. But the job came with challenges, too, a lot of which had to do with being short staffed. Ellis said his division in Gillette was only fully staffed for a few months of the four years he served as a state trooper. 

According to a letter from the Wyoming Highway Patrol Association, 178 troopers have left the agency since 2010, on account of retirement, seeking law enforcement positions elsewhere, and leaving the profession entirely. The letter also says Wyoming is struggling to attract applicants to fill those positions, since other states offer relocation allowances, sign-on bonuses, and more competitive compensation. 

“A lot of this is that their hands are kind of tied,” said Ellis. 

So while Gordon may be adamant about raising pay to attract and keep workers, lawmakers ultimately hold the purse strings and will make a decision in the upcoming budget session.

Maggie Mullen reports on state government and politics. Before joining WyoFile in 2022, she spent five years at Wyoming Public Radio.

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  1. Why would any talented professional want to work in the public sector amidst a state government run by people who regularly profess their contempt for the public sector and its workers, and which regularly engages in budgetary cutbacks except for police and prisons? This shouldn’t shock anyone.

    I doubt compensation is it – state employee compensation is pretty good for people living and working in Wyoming. It’s the culture. You have people working to genuinely improve the lives and well-being of Wyoming citizens, with higher ups who will throw them under the bus and for citizens who will accuse them of stealing an election or covering up the COVID hoax or whatever. You can take it for awhile, but shoot, eventually you’ve got to look out for your own sanity.

  2. The compensation issue is a major problem. We saw this in California and the legitimate comments below reflect the us and them mentality of upper management. The left loves to blame conservatives for the problem. This is BS of course. Culture is the problem. The brass in public bureaucracy is usually a college-educated inner circle with strange ideas and their noses in the air. They know to game the system and escalate their pay. One manager negotiates a raise in a Democrat run city. The next one does the same. And they tell a friend. And so on. Now you have a pattern and the game is on. Pressure is put on the next city or county and the next one gets their raise. The dominoes fall across the country. Soon they have 6 figure incomes and large pensions and begin hopping from one city to the next. In California there are retirees with multiple pensions living in luxury while staff cuts and pay freezes pummel the clerks like a sledgehammer.
    But the working staff can’t play these games. They are actually working for a living. The worker bees bust their butts and get scolded and hounded by the managers. They are lucky to get a pitiful raise now and then. They retire at poverty level pensions. The left here loves to pretend this is a local problem and blame political rivals. Bullies on the playground. Snide and dishonest.
    Group dynamics in play due to narcissism at the top of the food chain. The same happens in the private sector, but those businesses teeter and fail. The bureaucracy is too big to fail, so it meanders forward. I promise you that the push will be for the managers to bump their income substantially and the workers to get a few more pennies. Income inequality is a top-down problem.

  3. More money will help……but in no way is low wages the problem! Its a system that has the worst management and doesn’t care as long as they make their money. Bad employees are able to hide behind HR departments and lazy employees are able to hide behind safety office. ALL state employees should be AT WILL status, instead of the daycare it is now. The good workers are worked over and just give up and leave because of bad management.

  4. Ironically this article starts out telling how hard it is to get electricians to work for the State. Do they pay 100 to 120K per year? I personally know Wyoming industrial electricians who make that much easy. Many years ago (about 40 years or so) I attended a IBEW Local 415 meeting in Cheyenne. A Brother got up and said something that sticks in my mind to this day. This is paraphrased a bit but he said, “all we want really is a wage that we can support our families with benefits to protect them, time off for sickness and a couple weeks of vacation, and a pension for when we are old.” Recently our Governor wrote an opinion piece where he touted Senator Wallop for his opposition to the OSHA Law way back when. Those of you State workers who work in hazardous occupations, who wants to work for an employer who doesn’t give two S#$%&ts if you wind up dead.

  5. If government was actually run like a business it would have stay within a budget or eventually it would go out of business.

    1. Government is in business to spend money not make money. Like any business the quality of the output is commensurate with the quality of the inputs and especially the personnel. In other words “Pay peanuts you get monkeys”. Business right now is facing the same problem.

  6. The state probably gets plenty of applicants for positions that have a good supply of residents with wanted skills. If it doesn’t, it may be the application process, it may be the overly expansive experience requirements, it may be the low pay, it may be the poor training and education opportunities in Wyoming.

    Really good companies still have people lining up to work there. I know employers swamped with applicants. The biggest problem is the skill gap in Wyoming’s workforce. Sometimes, the state is the problem. We have a shortage of truck drivers. The state has made it more expensive to maintain a CDL than other states. WYDOT is stuck in old ways of doing business because change is too hard.

  7. Troopers are actually making less take home pay than we did 10 yrs ago. No raises to speak of, yet inflation over 20% in the same time period.

    The legislature does control the purse strings. A matrix merit raise is the same as pay for performance. How do you measure a troopers performance? It also is only “as funds allow”. It would be funded for 2 years only, then what? The state has always come back and said we don’t have the money to fund it any longer, so that puts us right back where we are now.

    The state needs to implement step pay raises and have a defined contribution plan and bring all employees up to market pay!

  8. The brainwash supplied by Reaganists that preached ” government is the problem ” is taking its toll.
    A Russian wildlife behaviorist showed that starting with a totally wild population of Foxes who feared humans at the outset, with careful conditioning the third generation of Fox were domesticated and nearly as accepting of humans as Dogs. Here in the 2020’s we are in the third generation of Reaganism . I hear a lot of anti-government dog whistles these days …

  9. Money won’t buy you love. From the outside looking in I would ascribe the turnover to lack of leadership at the executive, legislative and administrative levels. The key being policy issues conflicting with how many view their responsibilities.

    1. Money won’t buy you love but it will help to cover the rising cost of living. Problem is, the paltry pay raises given to state employees over the last two decades do not come close. The state legislature has continually favored budget cuts to state agencies over additional revenue sources and regarded state employees as expendable so is anyone really surprised that this is the result?

    2. Yeah, a lack in leadership in actually paying people fairly and ensuring adequate staffing and funding for agencies to do their statutorily required work maybe. Some individual agencies have deeper, and different issues than that of course (Laramie County DA for example) But primarily it’s a matter of compensation and resources that has caused this issue. That said, just randomly throwing money at the problem now and again like this isn’t going to solve it either. The state is responding intermittently and in extremely slow motion to a staffing crisis that has been snowballing for at least a decade. This pay bump, (if it even happens) may be too little too late for many current employees who have been overworked and underpaid for years and are burned out and ready to leave no matter what at this point. The turnover issue isn’t going to improve right away after this, and if it isn’t followed up with further, stable and persistent improvements, the situation isn’t going to improve at all.

    3. Money can’t buy you love, but that’s not what’s being discussed here. We’re talking about being able to pay your bills. We’re talking about fair pay for a fair days work. We’re talking about government paying employees 20% below market (mind you, not true market, but market as far as what other surrounding states and local governments are paying for those jobs). We’re not talking about utopia, but rather paying people for doing the work they’re doing for their employer. Additionally, a number of state employees were forced to give money back to their employer in the form of furlough days. That means state employees that are already paid below market having money taken out of their paycheck to help their employer.