By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- About 117,000 Oklahomans are currently unemployed. Another 50,000 are "under"-employed, meaning their hours have been cut or they're working part-time.
In the past year, the private sector's slashed more than 40,000 jobs in Oklahoma, and yet, at the same time, the public sector -- government -- has actually been growing.
The Oklahoma Impact Team discovered that while Oklahoma's unemployment rate was soaring almost 50 percent and most employment sectors were shedding jobs, the state government added an estimated 4,400 net new jobs.
"Why?" asked one man when we showed him the numbers. The man recently lost his job.
Another man, aware that the state and other local governments are now talking about furloughs and layoffs, said, "It seems a little unfair."
"That don't make sense," was the reaction of another person who learned the number of government jobs -- federal, state and local -- has been expanding at a time when government budgets have been shrinking.
In an effort to make sense of it, the Oklahoma Impact Team zeroed in on the largest number of these new jobs, which are classified as "local government." According to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, there was a net gain of 1,000 local government positions in the Tulsa MSA (metropolitan statistical area) between December 2008 and December 2009, and also 1,000 in the Oklahoma City MSA during the same time frame.
The numbers are not exact but are based on a sample survey of employers. The surveys, however -- even those from taxpayer-funded government employers -- are confidential, making it difficult to pinpoint what and where the new jobs are.
The Oklahoma Impact Team made an assumption that with 1,000 new local government jobs in the Oklahoma City MSA, at least a few of those would be with the city of Oklahoma City, one of the larger government employers in this statistical area.
The assumption was correct, but only in part. The city did add 59 new positions over this year-long period, and Sheri Guyse, a new marketing coordinator for the city, is happy she got one of them.
"I do most of my work for the planning department," Guyse said.
But it turns out that during the same period, Oklahoma City was also eliminating positions -- 62 of them.
Kristy Yager, the city's public information officer, said the result was a net loss.
"We actually lost three positions during that period," Yager said.
And Oklahoma City, it turns out, was not the exception among large municipal and county employers: Oklahoma County reported a net loss of jobs from the fall of 2008 to the fall of 2009, as did the city of Tulsa.
"I am surprised," said Lynn Gray, the chief economist for the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, which published the job data.
The "government" classification covers a broad range of employment activity, Gray pointed out, and said, therefore, the growth could be coming from other areas.
"Perhaps it is coming from school districts or tribal employment or one of those other components," he said.
Yes, teachers -- all public school positions, in fact -- are considered local government. And in the Oakdale school district, located within the Oklahoma City MSA, they did add 2.5 positions this school year.
Jill Willhoite got a part-time teaching position. She teaches one of three sixth grade classes, each with 20 students.
"If we tried to swish all those into two classes, it wouldn't work out that well. So I'm glad they decided to add a new teacher," Willhoite said.
Statewide, school personnel also increased from 2008 to 2009, but by only 56 total -- a tenth of the rate at which student enrollment increased. That is why administrators like Oakdale superintendent Kim Lanier insist schools are not abusing taxpayer dollars.
"They have to be prudent in the use of public funds," Lanier said. "We just have to be, we have to be beyond reproach in that area."
Referring back to the recommendation of officials at OESC that left one other area of local government to check for significant growth: tribal employment.
Tribal jobs are also classified as "local government," even when the jobs are not directly with the tribe but with a subsidiary business of the tribe.
The Cherokee Nation opened its Three Rivers Health Center in Muskogee two years ago. In the last year, they added 10 new positions to the staff, including a new pediatric nurse. Carrie Casebolt got the job.
"I feel fortunate to be employed, at this point in time, anywhere," Casebolt said.
Of course, tribal casinos, including the Cherokees' new Hard Rock Hotel, have also been hiring. Cherokee Nation Entertainment added 235 new positions in the last year.
Still, it turns out, that's just a small fraction of the 1,308 total new jobs the Cherokees created in Oklahoma during that time -- job growth which may span all Cherokee businesses, but which has ultimately been fueled by successful casino operations.
"Of course we've had profits from gaming over the past years, and the effort is to diversify those dollars and create jobs, which we've been very successful at," said Cherokee Nation Businesses CEO David Stewart.
So, it would seem taxpayers are footing the bill for this increase in "government" jobs, but they're doing it, not through required IRS filings. but voluntarily, one nickel, one quarter, one dollar at a time.
And Stewart said that's a win for the tribes, and also a win for the state.
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