N.C. job reductions hit women, minorities hardest

Budget cuts led to displacements

cjarvis@newsobserver.comFebruary 4, 2012 

Women and minorities were disproportionately hit by the budget cuts to state government last year.

Data provided by the state show that 58 percent of those who lost their jobs in this budget year were women, contrasted with the fact that 47 percent of the workforce in state agencies was female before the cuts. Forty percent of the laid-off workers were minorities, although they only comprised 34 percent of the state agency workforce.

The numbers mirror national economic trends that have seen male-dominated jobs like manufacturing begin to rebound while public-sector jobs that have traditionally been held by women continue to disappear. Reducing government jobs is just what the General Assembly had in mind as it looked for ways to close a budget deficit. But the outcome doesn't make anyone happy.

Andrea Harris, president of the Durham-based N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development, says government jobs traditionally have given women and minorities a career opening that didn't exist in private industry. Taking away that opportunity means trouble for communities across the state, she said.

"When you have so many people who are displaced, and so many women head of households, there are implications for children and families," Harris said. "This loss of jobs in the public sector for the population who are already at the very bottom, I think it will cost the state more in negative social consequences in the short and long run. This is a very frightening time."

Rep. Nelson Dollar, one of the key budget writers and a Republican representing Cary, says it wasn't the legislature's intention for administrative and lower-level workers to bear the brunt of the burden.

"I think that's always been a frustration for a number of us that more of the higher-level positions don't get looked at for consolidation," Dollar said. "It seems like the frontline folks are looked at first as opposed to looking at reductions in force of various management layers in the agencies. That does create a concern."

But Dollar pointed out that the overall number of layoffs was relatively small, despite dire warnings to the contrary. "Our intent was to have the least amount of effect that we could have on people delivering services to citizens," he said. "There were no mass layoffs."

The State Employees Association of N.C. agrees, saying workers fared better than expected with fewer than 1,000 non-education losses. In fact, the cuts were not big enough to substantially alter the overall ratio of male-female or white-minority employees, which has remained steady in recent years.

Debra B. Johnson, 55, of Raleigh started working for state government when she was 17. After three decades, the administrative assistant in the state Department of Health and Human Services thought she had five or six more years left to give. Then last summer her boss said her position would be eliminated due to a reduction in force.

"It was devastating," she said. "There was no warning or anything."

Just last week, Johnson landed a temporary position with the state. But the single mother and grandmother is taking classes at Wake Tech in hopes of improving her chances at a permanent job.

She is one of more than 3,000 state workers who lost their jobs in the past few months, but the majority of those were in education and many of them are hard to quantify. In those jobs that can be counted, an analysis by The News & Observer shows that women and minorities suffered the most.

"It appears that women and minorities are over-represented in the RIF numbers," state personnel office spokeswoman Margaret Jordan said. "We will have to delve into these numbers to pinpoint exactly what's going on."

A total of 600 state agency employees found their positions eliminated because of reduction-in-force separations during the last six months of last year. That covers the core of what most people think of as state government: the 22 agencies whose employees fall under the State Personnel Act, such as the departments of Public Safety, Transportation, and Health and Human Services.

At least an additional 2,418 education workers in kindergarten through 12th-grade positions - including 530 teachers - also lost their jobs, but information on those employees' race and sex is not collected. Women make up the majority of education employees. That data doesn't include state universities - which comprise nearly one-quarter of the state workforce - or community college reductions, either, because that information hasn't been compiled.

Separate from the state agencies, 252 employees were eliminated in the state Administrative Office of the Courts' budget for this fiscal year, and there women also took the brunt of the hit: They accounted for 81 percent of the eliminated positions.

That's explained partly because a lot of women work for AOC - 73 percent of its 6,000 employees. But what really hurt them were the legislature's budget cuts. In most cases legislators did not target specific positions, but they did identify support staff in district attorneys' offices, including 55 victim-witness legal assistants, who are mostly women. The AOC says that 162 of the 205 female employees leaving in this year's budget cuts left voluntarily.

As with the courts and education, some state government jobs traditionally tend to have more women in them: Administrative support and service jobs are predominately held by women, according to the state's latest Equal Employment Opportunity Status Report. At the same time, women - particularly minority women - are underrepresented in other jobs, such as top and middle management, technicians, law enforcement and production. Job classifications for the 600 eliminated state agency workers was not available.

Another Health and Human Services employee who lost her job, Tonya Carter, had been employed by North Carolina for 15 years.

"As a state employee I've always had it in mind the budget could affect my employment," said Carter, a 40-year-old Warren County resident who is Native American. "However, the moment I was served with my RIF notice I was not expecting it."

Carter was one of five people who inspected jails throughout the state. The entire section, except for one person, was wiped out. Their work will now be handled by the department's construction inspection staff.

Married with one child at home and another grown, Carter says she has been actively looking for work since she left state government. But jobs and resources are especially slim in Warren County, and it has been a struggle to persevere.

"I'm a pretty positive, upbeat person," Carter said. "After getting over the initial shock of being told after Sept. 30 you no longer have a job, I made the decision I was not going to be beat by this."

Jarvis: 919-829-4576

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