The Great Resignation in Georgia’s State Government

Illustration by Brittney Phan (State Affairs)

Key Points
  • A highest-ever 23% turnover rate hit Georgia’s state government hard over the past year.
  • Experts say the spike in quits has likely worsened prison violence and homelessness.
  • State workers can expect pay raises later this year – but will it really help cut down turnover?

Georgia’s state government notched its highest-ever annual staff turnover rate at 23% from mid-2020 to mid-2021, according to state data – higher than many other state governments such as Louisiana, Alabama and Arizona.

Low salaries and stiff competition from the private sector have siphoned off employees at key agencies caring for foster kids, helping mental-health patients and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Chick-fil-a can pay significantly more than we can,” said state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey, who runs Georgia’s infectious-disease programs and COVID-19 response.

In this story, State Affairs breaks down the numbers behind the Great Resignation in Georgia’s state government and what it means for getting residents their taxpayer-funded services.

Many of Georgia’s top state agencies serving millions of people saw large turnover in the 2021 fiscal year. (Credit: Brittney Phan for State Affairs)

Staff turnover has bled into every corner of Georgia’s government. The top 20 state agencies providing critical services saw one-fourth of their workforce leave, totaling nearly 10,000 state employees. That’s almost the same number of U.S. workers employed by Coca-Cola.

“It is across the board in every sector of state government that we see,” Georgia House Appropriations Chairman Terry England (R-Auburn), who leads drafting the state’s $27 billion budget, told State Affairs. “Health care, law enforcement, corrections, environmental protection: all of those agencies are having those issues right now.”

In the 2021 fiscal year, turnover climbed higher than 35% at several key agencies in charge of prisons, juvenile detention centers, mental-health services, issuing driver’s licenses and the Georgia National Guard, state records show.

State lawmakers divvy up Georgia’s $27 billion for agencies each year at the Capitol building in Atlanta. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

The revolving door has turned fastest at Georgia agencies with some of the toughest, most hands-on jobs – like prison guards.

In mid-2018, there were roughly 6,200 correctional officers and higher-ranked sergeants and lieutenants working in Georgia prisons, state employment records show. Less than 40% were still on the payroll by June 2021.

The total number of state-funded guards also fell over that time:

  • 2018 officers/higher ranks: 6,205
  • 2021 officers/higher ranks: 4,091

Meanwhile, Georgia’s prison population hasn’t fallen nearly as much, leading many inmate advocates to pin blame for rising suicides and violence partly on guard shortages.

“Without the proper staff, that is when it leads to violence,” said retired Georgia Warden Jose Morales, speaking with WCEG Talk Radio. “There’s no one to manage all of the inmates in every dormitory.”

Georgia’s prison system has one of the highest turnover rates for employees in the state government. (Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections)

High turnover isn’t just a headache for agencies’ human resources and hiring managers. Training new staff who quit comes with a big price.

Nearly $3 million in Georgia taxpayer dollars went down the drain last year to train correctional officers at juvenile detention centers who promptly quit, according to the state Department of Juvenile Justice. The turnover rate for juvenile correctional officers was 90% last fiscal year. It cost roughly $5,300 to train each of them. 

“There’s no organization on the planet for which that’s sustainable,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta). “That turnover rate, we have to get it way, way, way down.”

Turnover also shot up for doctors and nurses working in Georgia’s five psychiatric hospitals, which serve patients facing mental-health crises. Since January 2020, more than 1,000 workers – 28% total – have left local psychiatric hospitals, forcing staff to reduce patient admissions. The shortage has put many people in a serious bind, said Judy Fitzgerald, commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

“When people in a psychiatric crisis can’t be served in the deepest end of our system – the hospitals – they land in emergency departments and jails and places in communities where they’re not going to get the treatment they need,” Fitzgerald recently told state lawmakers.

Thousands of state employees work in the James H. “Sloppy” Floyd Building across from the Capitol building in Atlanta. (Credit: Beau Evans for State Affairs)

Georgia’s government may not have even hit rock bottom yet. One-fourth of all state employees will be eligible for retirement within three years, prompting concerns over more staff losses and whether enough younger employees will stick around to replace retirees.

Among all state workers, those who quit the fastest last fiscal year were the younger generations of Millennials and Gen Zers, state data shows:

  • FY2021 Millennial turnover: 25.7%
  • FY2021 Gen Z turnover: 76.4%

A retirement tsunami looms ahead for state governments across the U.S., said Gerald Young, the senior research analyst for the nonprofit MissionSquare Research Institute, formerly called the Center for State and Local Government Excellence.

Retirements are ticking up after many career state workers delayed retiring to pitch in during the COVID-19 pandemic, Young said. The nonprofit’s recent workforce study found hundreds of U.S. state and local government human-resource officials expect a wave of retirements to hit over the next few years.

“It’s not going to be an overnight return to the way things used to be,” Young told State Affairs. “It’s going to take several years of rebuilding.”

This graph from the MissionSquare Research Institute highlights responses from state and local government officials across the U.S. who have seen fewer employees delay retiring and more speeding up retirement over the past decade. (Credit: MissionSquare Research Institute)

State governments can potentially stem the turnover tide by offering employees higher salaries and bonuses, said Rivka Liss-Levinson, the nonprofit’s senior research manager. Georgia plans to do just that with a $5,000 raise for most of the state’s roughly 68,000 government employees, potentially starting this summer.

Agency heads and supporters see the pay bump as a shot in the arm for state workers who struggled through the pandemic, particularly those with low starting salaries. Rank-and-file prison guards, for example, currently make between $30,000 and $35,000 a year on average, state records show. Juvenile-detention officers earn even less, often as low as $28,000 a year.

But better pay can’t be the only solution to curbing turnover, said Liss-Levinson. Government employees also want more skills training and leadership development opportunities – and to really feel their work is appreciated by their bosses and the public.

Many Georgia officials agree. Juvenile Justice Commissioner Tyrone Oliver, who heads Georgia’s juvenile detention system, recently said his agency – like many others in Georgia – needs more focus on promoting the public-service aspects of their jobs and not just the dollars that new hires can expect to pocket.

“We still have to do a better job on the culture,” Oliver said. “You can pay somebody $5,000 a day, and if the job is difficult, they’re going to leave.”

What else do you want to know about the challenges and job turnover for Georgia’s state workers? Share your thoughts/tips by emailing: [email protected].