York County officials: State switch made hiring child protective services caseworkers more difficult

Logan Hullinger
York Dispatch
President Commissioner Susan Byrnes turns to applaud Terry Clark, director of York County Office of Children, Youth and Families, at a press conference announcing the office receiving its full license. (Photo by David Weissman/ The York Dispatch)

Given the high-stress nature of the work, the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families has struggled for at least 10 years to recruit and retain caseworkers — a task local officials say was made more difficult this year because of changes at the state level.

State law requires counties to hire from a list of approved applicants — those who have taken civil service exams — for certain government positions, including child protective services caseworkers.

The State Civil Service Commission switched to new software in April, a move Executive Director Jeffrey Wallace said was intended to streamline that process.

But in York County, at least, Children, Youth and Families (CYF) director Terry Clark said it had the opposite effect, causing a “drastic” increase in vacancies.

The county had issues with the civil service system even before the switch, local officials said, and tried for years to leave it in favor of more flexibility in hiring.

The state notified them Thursday, Dec. 20, that York County's contract was terminated, allowing it to hire civil service workers at its own discretion moving forward.

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System problems: For now, though, the county is still dealing with the software switch. Clark said the issue is twofold.

First, in anticipation of the April switch, the state stopped populating the civil service employment list in January, meaning the pool of potential hires was smaller than usual.

Then on April 23, all names were purged when the new system went online, meaning all previous applicants had to retake their exams and counties had to wait while the list was rebuilt.

The software switch did more harm than good, Clark said, presenting back-to-back issues for agencies such as his trying to hire in the civil service field.

Although York County’s CYF office averages nine to 10 caseworker vacancies every month, around the time of the transition, the number increased to as high as 29, which Clark called "drastic."

The state software switch “affected us quite a bit,” he said. 

Between January and May last year, the county had 199 candidates for caseworker positions, according to data provided by county spokesman Mark Walters.

But with the switch this year, the county only had 120 names to search through during that same time frame, he said.

Although caseworker staffing in York County CYF has consistently fallen below the number of budgeted positions for at least a decade, this year shows the biggest discrepancy between the two, as 25 caseworker positions remain vacant.

Wallace, the executive director of State Civil Service Commission, defended his department’s handling of the switch, saying transferring previous applicants into the new system "was not an option."

The state awarded the contract for the software switch to NeoGov, a company specializing in human resources that touts an all-in-one system that reports hiring metrics, determines hiring trends and manages civil service job candidates.

PowerPoint presentations created by the state's Office of Administration to teach employees about the switch to NeoGov’s system show the state knew beforehand the list of those who had already taken exams would be erased.

Applicants were informed they would have to take their exams again after the switch, Wallace said.

Abandon exam? Even before the switch, York County had been trying to remove itself from the state's civil service system for more than two years because it slowed the hiring process, county Commissioner Chris Reilly said.

The effort began around the time CYF was on the verge of being taken over by the DHS after receiving its fourth consecutive provisional license as a result of failed inspections, the last of which was largely because of clerical errors. 

But with one more inspection determining the control of CYF, the office received a full license in November 2016 and has maintained the license since.

More:York CYF fully licensed, but 'long road ahead'

The Civil Service Act requires positions that fall under civil service coverage, which account for 70 percent of state jobs, to be hired from the state's merit hiring system, according to the DHS.

Unlike non-civil service positions, those seeking employment for positions such as a caseworker must take an exam, and their scores are eventually posted to an employment list.

York County Commissioner Chris Reilly

Counties have contracts with the State Civil Service Commission to use the system, and they must submit a plan outlining how they will implement their own hiring system if they wish to get out of the contract.

Neighboring counties, such as Dauphin and Lancaster, made the switch years ago.

"We viewed our participation in the civil service system, particularly in children and youth, as an impediment to hiring," Reilly said. "It's been an unusually long process."

The state's decision Thursday allows CYF to hire more quickly and use more creative methods such as holding job fairs at local universities, Clark said.

DHS spokesman Colin Day didn't directly respond to why it had taken so long for the county to be released from the state-run system, instead citing the process as "a collaborative effort between the county, DHS and Office of Administration."

— Logan Hullinger can be reached at lhullinger@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @LoganHullYD.