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Annual resignations spike nearly 62% for Fairfax County government jobs

The Fairfax County Government Center (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Worker resignations for Fairfax County government positions jumped up nearly 62% from 2020 to 2021, from 507 departures to 821 departures.

Fairfax County leaders are debating how to improve recruitment and retention, citing private-sector wages that created competitive environments for positions from police to information technology.

“These resignations and retirements are trending higher,” Director of Human Resources Cathy Spage said yesterday (Tuesday) during a personnel committee meeting. “I will say that they were trending higher before the pandemic. They just started accelerating their trend pretty much starting in 2021.”

Dranesville District Supervisor John Foust noted that Maryland recently ended its four-year-college-degree requirements for many jobs. The Old Line State estimates that more than half of its over 38,000 positions can substitute a four-year degree with experience, training, or community college education.

Foust recommended that Fairfax County reevaluate its criteria for different positions, which could have been established decades ago in some cases.

Different factors mean different agencies across the regional government require different solutions, County Executive Bryan Hill said.

“We’ve seen the attrition rate for public safety rise dramatically over the last couple years,” said Tom Arnold, the deputy county executive for safety and security.

Resignations in public safety have increased from 87 positions in 2018 to 129 departures in 2021, while retirements have increased every year during that time frame, from 96 to 141.

“Over the first two months of this calendar year, we’ve seen a much higher attrition rate…within public safety, comparable to…health and human services or others, but I think the scariest part of that is, many of those exits are to the private sector,” Arnold said.

As agencies have raised starting salaries to compete, additional challenges could arise from the resulting inequities between pay for new staff and existing staff, he noted.

County seeks solutions

The county is examining whether compensation, the pension system, and other factors are enough to attract and keep staff, something that is more difficult for the public sector in hot job markets.

“We gotta know exactly why people are leaving,” Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff McKay said, adding that departing county government workers shouldn’t feel shy or intimidated about sharing information in exit interviews.

He also noted the private sector is being affected too, with the region having hundreds of thousands of job vacancies.

“I think we need to spend some time in doing what the private sector and other public entities are forced to do right now: take action in strategic areas to stop the bleeding…to mechanically go in and fix something that we see a trend is telling us is a problem in a certain grade of employee or a certain class or a certain department or a certain agency,” McKay said.

As many workloads have increased during the pandemic, workers have reported stress, burnout, anxiety, and increased debt, according to a report released this month by MissionSquare Research Institute, a D.C. nonprofit linked to a retirement plan provider for public workers.

“Among those employees who are seeing more of their coworkers depart, nearly four out of five (78%) said the departures put a strain on their workload,” the institute wrote.

Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross, who chairs the personnel committee, said increased expectations, in part due to technology, have meant more demanding jobs, pushing workers to their breaking points.

While there is added stress and complaints, it can also create opportunities, she said, noting that employers might sometimes not fully recognize just how challenging increased workloads can be.

The county is preparing to finalize its budget for fiscal year 2023, which starts in July. The advertised budget included $79.26 million in unallocated funds that could be used for employee compensation and other county needs.

Increased valuations for vehicles could bring in additional revenue, though the county board is considering providing tax relief to auto owners.

Meanwhile, the county is working toward providing unions the right to collectively bargain, following an ordinance passed last October to allow the process.

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