By Rose Hoban
Dozens of irate employees of the state Department of Health and Human Services crowded into a meeting room in Raleigh on Tuesday night to express frustration with a surprise legislative proposal to move their department from its current location in Wake County to rural Granville County.
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Raleigh), whose western Raleigh district includes the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus where thousands of DHHS workers are housed, convened the meeting at the State Employees Association of North Carolina headquarters.
In a presentation at the beginning of the meeting, he estimated that the average DHHS worker would drive an additional three hours per day to and from the proposed Granville County site.
Then Chaudhuri asked who in the room would leave state service if they were compelled to make the move. Nearly all of the 70-some people present raised their hands.
Many of the employees there said they had concerns about moving their families out of Wake County, displacing children from schools and child care and spouses from jobs. One woman told of how she was caring for an aging mother.
Many said it’d be better to just look for another job rather than continue as a state employee.
“I’m curious as to what brought this conversation up for the move,” asked Laketha Miller, the DHHS controller. “Raleigh is the capital of our state, so you would think that you’d have your state agencies within that capital so that you could have those collaborative conversation with other agencies and other departments.”
Chaudhuri responded the proposal had never been discussed in any of the meetings on this year’s appropriations process, it only appeared when the Senate proposed their version of the budget, which had been initially drafted by the House of Representatives.
“We don’t know what the motivation was as to why this transfer appeared,” he said. “There’s a school of thought that if we transfer state agencies into more rural surrounding counties, it’s an opportunity to engage in economic development.”
He noted that was the argument being made for a transfer of the Department of Motor Vehicles to Rocky Mount, which was approved by the Council of State in March. Multiple outlets reported that a survey of DMV’s employees found the vast majority of them planned to leave the agency if the move goes through.
“It just seems like people are making serious decisions, in the dark, not bothering to ask state employees, pitting rural versus urban,” said contract compliance specialist Amaka Flynn. “When did a state government job become economic development?”
Making the move also goes against recommendations of a study done during the McCrory administration that concluded the best plan was to consolidate DHHS staff on a campus located on state land outside the beltline, close to the new state public health laboratory and the state emergency operations center.
Many reasons why not
Many in the room said they were watching the DMV move closely and understood why those employees would rather quit. For some, it wasn’t just a theoretical question; they had already been forced to deal with their DHHS job moving hours away.
Hope Turlington was offered a transfer to the new Central Regional Hospital in Butner in 2008 when Dix Hospital closed but she decided not to make the daily commute from her house in Harnett County.
“It would have taken me six hours of travel time in a day,” Turlington said, agitated. “There were employees just like all of us are here today. There was nothing done, nobody went to the line for those people and it’s the same process, the same thing today, everything behind closed doors, none of us know.”
After moving Dix operations to Central Regional, DHHS had difficulty recruiting qualified staff to the state psychiatric hospitals. During the McCrory administration lawmakers ended up appropriating funds for enhanced salaries to retain physicians and nurses.
Many of the people at Tuesday’s meeting brought up the recruitment issue.
Internal auditor Mike Zanchelli said that there are a number of challenges facing the department that require particular skills, in particular, those needed to make Medicaid transformation a success: information technology skills, contracts management, auditing.
“In this job market, it’s hard enough to find qualified people, to recruit them and retain them, certainly in the area where I work, [moving to Granville County] would increase the challenge exponentially” Zanchelli said. “IT people are in the most demand. No way in hell you’re getting people to Granville County. That’s just a fact.
“Even if you find the most able people, just the transition physically and the rotation of staff and management and senior leadership, anyone is delusional to think that it’s not going to impact the service,” delivered to citizens, he said.
Zanchelli did bring up the idea of telecommuting, but for some divisions, that’s just not an option.
Controller Laketha Miller, whose department handles billing, invoicing and all of the accounting functions for the almost $20 billion-a-year agency said her people have to be physically present to work on confidential files and with specialized software. Telecommuting, she said, is just not possible.
“We currently have about 190 people in our office that are impacted,” Miller said. “We are already starting to see folks withdraw for consideration for positions where they turned down job officers because they’re saying we’ve heard you’re going to move to Granville County.
“That’s starting to impact our operations some, so, we’re waiting to see.”
Chaudhuri said the department could be open to having a conversation about what the future of state government ought to be, “but it can’t just appear magically out of nowhere.”
“This has nothing to do with careful planning and everything to do with politics,” he continued. “It’s frankly not fair to subject state employees to the whims of what’s happening in the General Assembly.”
DHHS Business Complex LOC Report 9 30 2016 (PDF)