PUC STAFFING SHORTAGE HIGHLIGHTS STATEWIDE ISSUE
(AUSTIN) — The staff charged with overseeing the state's electric grid are underpaid and overworked, according to testimony offered by Public Utility Commission officials at Wednesday's Finance Committee hearing. PUC Chairman Peter Lake said that low pay, long hours, and a poor work/life balance are making it difficult to maintain staff levels. "We are losing employees - very good employees - at a staggering rate," he said. "We need the resources to compensate and keep the people we've got, and we need to be able to attract new talent to address the increasing complexity and responsibilities we have." Over the last 20 years, the employee cap at PUC has gone down, said Executive Director Thomas Gleeson, even as workload has continued to increase. "We've actually seen a precipitous decline in the number of FTEs [full-time employees] we have to deal with electricity and telecommunications issues," he said.
Staffing shortages, especially an inability to attract and retain skilled workers like attorneys, are not an isolated problem, said committee chair and Houston Senator Joan Huffman. "We keep hearing that throughout many of the agencies and throughout the judiciary," she said. Gleeson said the problem goes beyond money. The starting salary for a PUC attorney has risen from $48,000 to $70,000 per year over the last four years without touching the agency attorney turnover rate of 18 months - including two years with more than fifty percent turnover. Some employees have even taken massive pay cuts to take new, less demanding jobs, Gleeson told members. "Our former director of legal, who was making $170,000, felt so overworked that she resigned and took a job making $90,000," he said. Staff attorneys at PUC are carrying double the caseload they should be, Gleeson added, and cannot even use accrued earned benefits. In lieu of overtime, most state employees receive credit for working extra hours which can be used as paid-time-off within a 12-month period. Gleeson said his staff accrued 6,000 such hours last year, and was so busy they couldn't take that earned PTO and ended up losing 2,500 compensatory time hours. "I can't imagine what that does to your morale," said Houston Senator John Whitmire. "That seems like a double whammy on them." Gleeson agreed that working so many hours only to lose comp time leaves employees feeling short-changed.
Huffman told members that having skilled, dedicated legal staffing is only going to become more important moving forward. "As the state grows and our issues become more complex, we have to have staff that we can depend on, that are knowledgeable, and can work on these issues and we have to be willing to pay them," she said. "We're competing with the private sector, starting lawyers now at some of these big firms are starting at $200,000 - I know we can't do that, I'm not saying we should - but $70,000 is not competitive for a very complex issue that affects our constituents and the state of Texas in a real way."
Staffing shortages aren't just limited to the PUC or to the legal fields, as agencies across state government are having difficulty filling staff slots. Rising inflation and the astronomical cost of living in Austin are making it more and more difficult to afford on the typically low pay state employees receive, and a strong labor market is making the private sector more attractive for many. With the state in the best economic situation in living memory, lawmakers in both chambers included in their draft budgets a 5 percent, across-the-board pay raise for all state employees in each year of the 2024-2025 biennium. Calling the state workforce shortage a "crisis" when laying out the budget in January, Huffman said this raise would be the largest that state employees have received in 40 years.
The Senate will reconvene Tuesday, February 21, at 11 a.m.