By Jon Ortiz
Published: Monday, Aug. 30, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

California state government’s “Help Wanted” sign drew nearly 23,000 new employees in the past year and a half, although the overall size of the state work force remained relatively flat.

Seasonal firefighters, highway patrol cadets and unemployment insurance workers were among the largest groups in the 22,781 workers who were new to state service. The numbers, from January 2009 through June of this year, were produced by the state controller’s office.

Roughly 240,000 people worked for the government, with slight month-to-month variations in that number.

As it continued hiring, the state did cut back on the number of new full-timers.

The majority of the new workers, about 13,105, took occasional full-time, temporary or part-time jobs. An additional 9,676 full-time permanent employees who receive benefits made up the balance of hires.

“We’ve hired about half as many (full-time employees) as have retired,” said Lynelle Jolley, spokeswoman for the Department of Personnel Administration, noting that 18,000 state workers have taken their pensions in the past year and a half.

Michael Shires, a political scientist and state budget expert at Pepperdine University, said the numbers reflect a “gradual reduction in the state work force, but given the realities of the budget, it needs to be steeper.”

Schwarzenegger’s furloughs – which reduced state employees’ hours and pay by a total of 46 days during the period covered by the controller’s data – have likely pushed some state workers to leave, Shires said.

“But furloughs have probably also put the state in a position to hire more employees with the payroll savings,” he said.

With lawmakers deadlocked over how to close a $19 billion budget gap and with the state’s unemployment rate at 12.3 percent in July, the size and cost of California’s work force has become a political flash point in the 2010 gubernatorial race.

GOP candidate Meg Whitman has called for cutting the number of state workers by some 40,000 over four years, largely through eliminating jobs vacated when an employee retires or quits.

“As Meg has said, Californians have a government that they can no longer afford,” Whitman spokesman Darrel Ng said Friday. “This data shows that thousands of state workers are leaving through attrition every year, and Sacramento politicians should take this opportunity to return the size of the state’s work force to 2004-05 levels.”

Whitman’s Democratic opponent, Jerry Brown, has blasted her downsizing plan as simplistic. The state needs to prioritize program spending and let staffing flow from that, said Brown campaign spokesman Sterling Clifford during a telephone interview Friday. “How many people are working for the state or were hired or were let go, that’s not the objective,” Clifford said. “That’s the result of the objective – having a government that we can afford and that can provide the services we need.”

If hiring indicates priorities, then the state’s Corrections and Rehabilitation Department is at the top of the list. It hired 3,278 employees over the 18-month period, the most of any state agency.

The Employment Development Department brought in 2,984 new staff to meet a run-up in service demand during the recession.

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