For Immediate Release

Interested Parties Memo: Staffing the Front Lines

Everywhere you look, states, counties and cities are facing massive shortages of public service workers. State and local governments have posted hundreds of thousands of job openings, but they have not been able to rebuild their workforces to pre-pandemic levels, let alone recover from the Great Recession. And it’s causing a crisis.

  • In Alaska, there aren’t enough Department of Public Assistance workers to process applications, leaving families going hungry for months without essential SNAP benefits.

  • From Missouri to California, shortages in 911 dispatchers are causing longer wait times, and some have even reported watching family members die while on hold with 911.

  • In Illinois, AFSCME Council 31 members who work in 24/7 facilities such as psychiatric hospitals and veterans’ centers report extremely unsafe working conditions and an exacting toll on their personal lives, from stress-related health issues to divorces.

To stem the tide, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) is launching Staff the Front Lines, a new initiative focused on retention and recruitment of public service workers. AFSCME’s 1.4 million members are the front-line workers who dedicate their lives to making our communities safer, stronger and healthier. They see their work as a calling, but the ongoing staffing crisis is making their workload unsustainable. The solution to this crisis will require teamwork, and it’s critical that workers have a seat at the table to advocate for what they need.

A MissionSquare Survey found 52% of state and local workers are considering leaving their jobs. How Did We Get Here?

During the first few months of the pandemic, state and local governments made short-sighted workforce cuts, laying off more than one million public service workers and instituting hiring freezes. These cuts and freezes impacted all sectors, from school bus drivers to sanitation workers to corrections officers, which meant that when someone retired or quit, those jobs were often left empty.

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) helped stop the bleeding by providing states, counties and cities with the resources they needed to close budget holes and keep essential workers on the job. In fact, it was so successful that many states and localities reported budget surpluses despite the economic impact of the pandemic. However, they were also slow to begin rehiring.

By the time jobs posted, the labor market had become incredibly competitive, and employers struggled to find qualified candidates. High turnover and attrition due to retirement have contributed to unmanageable caseloads, making public service jobs less attractive, further burdening workers who have remained on the front lines.

  • Today, the public service is still 500,000 jobs short from pre-pandemic levels.

  • The number of applicants per open government job fell 56% from January 2021 to January 2022, per NEOGOV.

  • Last year, the average number of state and local job openings each month was up 46% compared to before the pandemic. Hires, though, were up just 11%. That’s not enough to fill the gap of jobs lost.

AFSCME has been warning about the threat of underfunding public services for decades. States, counties and cities failed to recover from the Great Recession, so countless sectors have been operating with reduced staff for more than a decade. Post-pandemic, it’s only gotten worse.

Solving This Crisis

Despite these challenges, AFSCME members never quit on our communities, and that’s why we are launching “Staff the Front Lines” – to address public service worker shortages. Through this new initiative, we will establish partnerships with state and local governments to help solicit qualified people to work in public service through job fairs, apprenticeship programs and other venues.

Raising awareness about job openings and expanding applicant pools is a critical first step in solving this problem. A Next100 survey that showed only one-third of people ages 18 to 36 even know where to find public service jobs.

Additionally, we will be conducting research and promoting policies that will help state and local governments attract talent and cut red tape that makes it hard to hire in the public service. And we are going to invest in retention efforts to not only recruit but keep services fully staffed. 

  • An analysis of nearly 60 studies on public employee job satisfaction found that the leading contributor of high turnover was exhaustion – meaning that making it easier and quicker to hire new workers is critical to solving this crisis.

Finally, at the national level, we will also continue to push Congress to make historic investments in public services and to raise the debt ceiling. Countless state and local programs depend on the federal government in some way. If services are slashed or cut back, it will trickle down, harming everything from Medicare to retirement security, setting us back on our path to recovery. Default is not an option.


We urge you to dive into this crisis and continue to sound the alarm on it. From another possible COVID outbreak to threats like West Coast wildfires and devastating hurricanes, it is not a question of if we’ll face another crisis, but when. We must ensure that our public services are strong and prepared to handle whatever will come next. And we cannot continue to ask front-line public services workers – many of whom have risked their lives over the past few years – to make do with dangerous levels of understaffing and worsening work conditions.

We also implore you to explore the impact of the union difference on improving public services and employee retention. Countless studies have shown that union representation helps to reduce turnover. When workers have a voice on the job, they can negotiate for improvements on everything from wages to working conditions. Unions also help to secure skills training and provide workers with additional support, which are proven to increase worker satisfaction. Public service workers represented by unions experience greater job security, as we saw during the pandemic when the rate of unionization increased despite the number of public service jobs decreasing overall.

Furthermore, we ask you to continue to highlight that states, counties and cities, because of investments made in public services, are financially stronger than we’ve seen in years. With more than $150 billion in ARPA funds still unspent, they have the resources to dedicate to rebuilding the public service workforce and making our communities stronger. Now is the time to make those investments.

If you’re interested in learning more about Staff the Front Lines or interviewing AFSCME President Lee Saunders, experts and front-line workers, please reach out to Natalia Pérez Santos at

To read more about AFSCME’s Staff the Front Lines effort click here.