About 45% of HIEMA’s civil service jobs are vacant, forcing the agency to use temporary and exempt employees to fill in.

Nearly half of the civil service positions in the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency were vacant last month, an alarming statistic that the top administrator of HIEMA attributes mostly to a cumbersome state hiring system and non-competitive state salaries.

HIEMA Administrator James Barros said his agency has temporary staff filling many of the jobs that are listed as vacant. But some key positions in HIEMA are occupied by employees who have not gone through the rigorous civil service vetting process and don’t have the minimum qualifications required of civil service employees.

The agency uses emergency hires or exempt employees who can rapidly be moved around within the organization to fill positions that must be staffed quickly, he said.

But the vacancy rate among permanent civil service employees who form the backbone of the agency’s operations could interfere with its ability to effectively do its job, which is preventing and responding to major emergencies such as hurricanes, tsunamis and fires.

“The difficulty in filling positions effectively does hamper government efficiency,” HIEMA spokesman Adam Weintraub said.

While it’s not a unique problem in state government, “it’s a significant one when you’re in a position that protects the health and safety of the people,” he added.

Reporters toured the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s command center earlier this year. The agency has been struggling to fill many of its positions, including some key leadership slots. (Chad Blair/Civil Beat/2023)

Data provided by HIEMA shows that 37 of 82 civil service positions were unfilled in September, which works out to a vacancy rate of slightly more than 45%. By comparison, it had 36 of 74 civil service vacancies in September 2022.

That is a snapshot of a problem that has existed for years, but HIEMA and the Maui Emergency Management Agency have come under extra scrutiny in the weeks following the devastating Lahaina wildfire on Aug. 8. That fire killed at least 99 people and destroyed more than 2,200 homes, businesses and other structures.

Relying On Reserves

When asked if the civil service hiring system is broken, Barros replied: “It’s functional. I kind of want to say it’s broken, but we make it work. We’re going to do what we can to make it work.”

“But when you look at the the number of vacancies in the civil service realm, that concerns me,” he said.

Larry Kanda, a former disaster assistance mitigation planner with HIEMA, said in an interview earlier this year that lack of staff at state and county emergency management agencies is “my biggest gripe.”

There were about 20 vacancies at HIEMA when Kanda left about four years ago, “and that’s huge,” he said. “All of the counties and the state are severely undermanned in emergency management.”

Barros said he is most concerned about key positions such as the state hazard mitigation management officer — who plans for emergencies and writes grants to fund those plans — and a disaster recovery team leader position. Both of those jobs are now temporarily held by exempt employees.

“I would like all the civil service positions filled in this emergency management specialist position, because those are the ones working in operations, working in logistics, manning our emergency operations center when we’re activated,” he said.

Also of particular concern are the jobs in the HIEMA shop that maintains the state’s emergency warning sirens and telecommunications systems.

“We’re going to do what we can to make it work. But when you look at the number of vacancies in the civil service realm, that concerns me.”

HIEMA Administrator James Barros

Four of the nine civil service positions assigned to handle that work are vacant, which Barros said is largely because the state pays its technicians less than private employers such as Verizon and AT&T.

HIEMA has been using what it calls “reserves,” which are 89-day hires who can quickly be plugged into various positions as needed, Barros said. The agency has 20 standing reserve positions, and those staffers are often drawn from the ranks of retired police, firefighters or other specialties.

HIEMA also has nearly three dozen longer-term, grant-funded positions. Staff in those jobs can also be deployed relatively quickly to fill gaps in the civil service ranks as needed, he said.

In all HIEMA has 134 positions, including the 82 civil service jobs, 32 exempt positions and 20 slots for reserves.

Plans To Ask Legislature For Help

But HIEMA needs a way to streamline the recruitment process so that qualified applicants are not left hanging for extended periods, waiting to hear if they will finally be offered a job, Barros said.

One problem with the existing system is the state Department of Human Resources Development generally prefers to post jobs for a significant period of time in an effort to attract the largest possible pool of applicants.

That can cause the recruitment, screening and interview process to drag on for six months, leading qualified applicants to accept other jobs, Barros said.

Breena Hashimoto, director of the state Department of Human Resources Development, said the state hiring process can be expedited for jobs that urgently need to be filled, including the option of posting them for as little as two weeks.

However, once DHRD gets the requisition for a position, “oftentimes there are delays,” she said.

“We have our own workload issues, so I will acknowledge we don’t post jobs as quickly as we we would like at this point,” she said.

She also said applicant interest often drops sharply from the time DHRD posts a job and screens the applications to the time the department tries to schedule interviews with the qualified applicants.

“Oftentimes we only get a fraction of applicants who will agree to come in for an interview, and we see that across the board in all types of jobs,” she said. “It’s one of our biggest challenges, and I don’t believe we’re the only employer who experiences that.”

Barros said HIEMA staff will ask state lawmakers next year for some fixes to help fill more of the civil service positions permanently, including sweetening some salaries.

“The salaries right now are kind of low, in my opinion,” he said.

Kanda, who worked for HIEMA off-and-on over a span of about 30 years, agreed. He said skilled HIEMA employees can nearly double their pay if they quit and take jobs with the private sector or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Hashimoto said the state has programs that allow state managers under some circumstances to start paying experienced incoming employees at the middle of the state pay scales, or even higher.

The state also has a program for “shortage” fields such as engineering where the standard pay steps based on experience scales cannot compete with the salaries offered by the private sector.

In those cases, the pay steps can be accelerated up to the maximum pay scales negotiated with the unions to make state employment more enticing, Hashimoto said.

“They need to come to us and tell us what their challenge is,” she said.

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