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Feeling unloved, skilled public employees are hitting the exit

Michele Glinn loved her job, and she was good at it. As the only Ph.D toxicologist working in the Michigan State Police toxicology unit, she analyzed blood samples for alcohol and other drugs -- and crisscrossed the state testifying in court.

Frustrated by unpaid furlough days, a shrinking staff and a negative public perception of state employees, Glinn sat down at her computer one day last fall and sent her resume to an employment search firm. “I got a call from the headhunter the same day,” Glinn recalled. “Two days later, I had a phone interview; a week later, I was in St. Louis being offered a job on the spot.”

Her U-Haul crossed the state border in November, leaving Michigan with no one who can provide expert testimony for the prosecution in alcohol and drug cases. "The state has no one to answer scientific questions,” Glinn said. “That’s a public safety issue.”

Michigan is paying a price for saving money. As the state shrinks its work force and has cut pay through unpaid furloughs, those with the most ability to find jobs in the private sector -- usually workers with advanced education such as Glinn -- leave. This state government "brain drain" may save taxpayers money in the short term, but it is costing the state critical expertise.

Fewer workers, more pressure

State government employment has plummeted in the past decade, down 23 percent (14,000 workers) since 2001. Those remaining are bringing home smaller paychecks -- wages have been flat while employee costs for insurance are up. Meanwhile, workers have taken about 15 unpaid furlough days in the past three years, the equivalent of a 2 percent pay cut.

Yet the public perception of state employees is that they are “overpaid and under-worked,” said Charles Ballard, economics professor at Michigan State University.

A study conducted by Ballard in 2009 found that state employees with advanced degrees (above a bachelor’s) earn less than they could in the private sector. State employees with a master’s degree earned 36 percent less; those with a Ph.D earned 24 percent less.

“If you’re a janitor working for the state, you’re probably getting paid pretty well, compared to other janitors,” Ballard said. “But if you’re a doctor or a lawyer, you’re taking a huge pay cut to work for the state.”

Nevertheless, a Detroit News poll in early 2011 found that 52 percent of Michiganians supported cutting public employee compensation.

“People say we have to pay multimillion-dollar bonuses to Wall Street bankers, because you need to keep the best and brightest,” Ballard said. “But as soon as taxpayer money is involved, people are supposed to accept the wage they’re offered.

“The abuse takes a toll,” Ballard said.

Toxicologist shown better job

It took a toll on Glinn, who, as toxicology program coordinator, was in charge of the State Police labs that test blood samples for alcohol and other drugs. Those tests are essential for prosecutions of crimes involving impairment. Glinn ran the office when she was in Lansing, and traveled the state as an expert witness for the prosecution, testifying in 40 to 50 cases a year.

“I loved this job,” Glinn said. “This was my favorite job I’ve had. I felt like I was making a difference.”

Even when Glinn was there, the main MSP lab in Lansing was understaffed -- about a third of its positions were vacant. The state’s other Ph.D toxicologist, Felix Adatsi, left a year ago for a better-paying job in Washington, D.C., increasing Glinn’s workload.

So when she resigned, “prosecutors were calling me in a panic,” Glinn said. “They said who is going to testify about impairment? I had to tell them I didn't know.”

Today, Glinn makes 30 percent more than she did with the Michigan State Police. She works fewer hours, and is part of a profit-sharing program at a private company.

The State Police still doesn’t know if it will even replace her. For the current fiscal year, MSP was appropriated money for 2,751 full-time positions. Yet, as of Dec. 24, 2011, the agency had only 2,317 employees. That means more than one in seven jobs in an already stripped-down staff are vacant.

Vacant jobs save money for a cash-strapped state budget, but also increase the likelihood that more stressed-out workers leave for greener pastures.

The gap mimics a state government trend. For the current budget year, lawmakers appropriated for 54,317 slots. On Dec, 24, 2011, there were 47,809 regular employees.

“Experience is looked upon as a minus instead of a plus,” said Mitch Bean*, a longtime director of the nonpartisan analysis staff of the House Fiscal Agency, who retired last year. Bean said the attitude is that “people who have been around awhile must be the source of the problem.”

Bean points out that 42 percent more workers took a buyout in 2010 than what the state expected, even though the financial incentive amounted to only an additional $100 to $150 per month. “Nobody is going to make a life-changing decision based on that (amount of money),” Bean said. “The common refrain I heard is state workers are just worn down from what they perceive to be years of abuse.”

The result is a loss of institutional knowledge. “There’s more inefficiency because you have less experienced people running the show,” Bean said. “You need people who’ve been around to make good policy decisions.”

The forensic scientists who remain in the Michigan State Police toxicology unit testify about the findings of drug tests they run, but can’t draws conclusions about those findings like a toxicologist can.

"We’re weighing (whether to try to hire a Ph.D toxicologist) right now,” said Scott Marier, assistant director of the Forensic Sciences Division at MSP. “We’re trying to determine what kind of testimony the forensic laboratory should be offering.”

If the MSP doesn’t hire someone, Michigan's county prosecutors will have to scramble to find and pay for toxicologists to offer testimony to counter the testimony of expert defense witnesses.

“We’d have to tell the prosecutors, ‘We can tell you what the level is, but if you want someone to talk about the effects (of impairment) on a Ph.D level, there is no one to do it,’” Marier said.

Michigan is following a “troubling trend” across the nation, said Sarah Kerrigan, past president of the Society of Forensic Toxicologists. “(State officials) say, why do we even need these Ph.D experts? We’ll just let (county prosecutors) hire someone at $400 an hour to testify.”

In a survey conducted by the association last year, 64 percent of publicly funded labs had cut staff or held positions open in the past 12 months as a cost-saving measure.

Mike Nichols, an East Lansing defense attorney who specializes in drunken-driving cases, calls the state government’s brain drain “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Not having a state toxicologist available to testify “benefits the defense in some situations and benefits the prosecuting attorney in some cases, but ultimately, it hurts the taxpayers,” Nichols said. “It retards their ability to present the truth to the court or jury."

Even if MSP decides to hire a toxicologist, Marier isn’t sure it’s possible.

Glinn was earning about $84,000 annually after working for the state for 12 years. A replacement would be paid less. With Ph.D toxicologists able to earn substantially more in the private sector, “money might be a problem,” Marier noted.

Meanwhile, those who remain in the toxicology lab are buried under work.

“I had a conversation with someone who works in the lab today, and she said she went to lunch and when she came back, she had messages from seven prosecutors, all asking where their evidence was,” Marier said.

Concerns about staffing levels in the State Police toxicology lab is one of the top issues of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, according to the association’s president, Isabella County Prosecutor Larry Burdick.

Burdick said he has confidence that the current lab employees will provide prosecutors with the test results they need. Still, “there’s a problem in terms of resources,” Burdick explained. “Dr. Glinn was a valuable asset. Her loss will be felt.”

Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards at the Detroit News. He is also the author of “Driven Abroad,” a book chronicling the movement of Michigan jobs overseas.

* Editor's note: Mitch Bean is a member of the Bridge Magazine Board of Advisers.

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