Claims of ‘big government’ aside, the number of people employed by Minnesota governments has stayed pretty steady

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
State and local governments in Minnesota employ the equivalent of about 285,000 full-time employees.

One of his very first days on the job last week, President Donald Trump ordered a hiring freeze for federal employees — except public safety, military and national security workers.

“This memorandum counters the dramatic expansion of the federal workforce in recent years,” the president’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, told journalists. “In particular, it prevents filling vacant positions and creating new positions except when necessary to meet national or public security responsibilities.”

That set the internet atwitter over the size of the federal government, which has not, in fact, ballooned in recent years (at least in terms of employees). According to data from the Federal Reserve Bank, it's actually been on the decline since the fifties.

Federal workforce as a share of total workforce
This chart shows percent of the total non-farm workforce made up by the federal civilian workforce, using annual averages, from 1950 to 2015.
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

But the episode did raise a related question, one that strikes closer to home: What about state and local government in Minnesota — has that dramatically expanded in recent years?

Relatively steady

State and local governments in Minnesota employ the equivalent of about 285,000 full-time employees. If you add up all the full time and the part time workers, they account for about 13 percent of the state’s overall workforce, according to data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Public Employment and Payroll and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which surveys governments every March.

Those figures include teachers, firefighters, city administrators, police officers, professors, public utilities workers, librarians, parks employees and others.

While the number of full-time and part-time state and local employees has increased by about 18,000 since 2007, their share of the workforce has remained relatively constant — usually slightly above or slightly below 13 percent. The number of full time employees increased by a smaller amount — about 5,000 — since 2007.

Taken another way, between 2007 and 2015, Minnesota’s population grew about 4 percent, according to estimates from the Minnesota State Demographic Center, while the number of government employees grew about 1.5 percent,  according to the most recent Census Survey of Public Employment and Payroll and Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Most public workers in Minnesota, about 71 percent, are employed by local — not state — governments, which includes cities, counties, schools and other local units of government.

State and local government employees
The number of full time equivalent public employees working in state and local government dipped slightly during the recession, but has risen since.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau Annual Survey of Public Employment and Payroll

As far as where these workers are employed, the vast majority — 57% of full time employees — work in education — mostly the public K-12 school system and universities. Police and prison workers also make up a large share, as do hospital and health workers.

State and local public employees
State and local governments in Minnesota employed the equivalent of 285,000 full-time employees in 2015.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau Annual Survey of Public Employment and Payroll

How much does this cost taxpayers?

In 2015, monthly payroll for Minnesota’s state and local governments was more than $1.3 billion, an increase of about 21 percent (not adjusted for inflation) over 2007. (As a percentage of the state economy, government payrolls have remained pretty steady.)

Monthly pay - state and local government workers
State and local government employees' total monthly pay increased by 21 percent (not adjusted for inflation) between 2007 and 2015.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau Annual Survey of Public Employment and Payroll

Recession dip

As it did in state and local governments all over the country, the number of public employees in Minnesota dipped during the Great Recession years — roughly 2008 to 2011.

In Minnesota, that dip represented a 3 percent reduction in the number of full time workers employed by state and local governments between 2009 — the highest level of public employment in the recession era — and 2011, the year with the lowest number of public employees.

In an analysis of local governments’ reaction to the recession across the U.S., Governing found that the tougher economy and reductions in state aid led many state and local governments to lay off workers, freeze pay and reduce benefits to workers.

During the recession in Minnesota, public workers in St. Paul took pay cuts, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s salary was frozen and pay freezes and furloughs were proposed for state workers.

More than 60 percent of cities that responded to a League of Minnesota Cities survey said they cut or froze wage levels in 2009 and 2010. Likewise, about a quarter said they’d reduced the size of their workforce in those years.

State and local public employment numbers have largely recovered — more in Minnesota than in some places. But that recovery has been uneven, said Julie Ring, the executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties: parts of the state that recovered more quickly from the recession, such as the state's metro areas, have tended to their hiring resources return more robustly. Research from the National Association of Counties found that just 53 percent of Midwestern counties' revenues in 2013 had recovered to 2007 levels or above.

While employment either remained the same or recovered from a decline in some sectors, others remain at lower levels of employment.

The number of health workers in local governments (including public health programs, drug and alcohol rehab, visiting nurse and food inspection workers) employed by local governments for example, has declined 29 percent since 2009.

Crow Wing County administrator Timothy Houle told MinnPost his county’s staff has decreased from 455 to 419 full time staffers between about 2008 and today.  Those cuts have been across the board, but if they’ve focused anywhere in particular, it’s in public health, he said.

That’s an area where the county has some wiggle room to offer the services it feels are needed, which may help explain bigger cuts: Crow Wing County has largely gotten out of the business of immunizing its residents because they can get that done at the local drug store. Meanwhile, it’s diverted some of those public health resources into mental health and addiction services. The county has also instituted a pay-for-performance system for county workers and focused more efforts on customer satisfaction, he said.

If residents have noticed a difference, Houle said, he hopes it’s for the better.

While there was an overall drop in the number of local workers in the health fields, state and local governments increased the number of financial administration, transit and fire protection workers by 33, 21 and 18 percent, respectively, since 2007.

Of course, there are other ways to measure the size of government — like spending. The Census data in this analysis don’t reflect that, nor do they reflect areas where state and local governments may have contracted with private sector companies to provide services, eliminating the need for some jobs.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 01/31/2017 - 12:22 pm.

    My Mind Is Made Up

    Don’t confuse me with the facts, alternative or otherwise.

  2. Submitted by Joe Bontems on 01/31/2017 - 03:08 pm.

    Health v. Corrections

    A shame that the number of public employees involved with corrections is superior to that if that of those providing health care services. Imagine how correction expenditures might be reduced if adequate funding of (crime) preventive services such as good quality education, health care, housing and income support were available and accessible to those at all levels of income.
    Utopic? Not really… just everyday practice in the homelands of the Nordic ancestors of many Minnesotans.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/31/2017 - 03:44 pm.

    Many people

    …who like to call themselves “conservative” will conveniently ignore most of what’s in this piece. They’ll have to, actually, since their heads will explode otherwise. Condemning “big government” is the first commandment for far too many.

  4. Submitted by John Appelen on 01/31/2017 - 10:23 pm.

    Contract Employees

    Greta, Did this include contract employees who work for the government? If not, how would that impact the numbers?

    From what I understand, at the Fed level the employees have been flat but the contracts have grown rapidly.

    Whenever you want to start holding our education system and questionable parents accountable for leaving so many kids behind, I am all for it. Just giving them more money and expecting better results will not work.

    Did you see this interesting report from NPR?

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