Gov. Charlie Baker's plan to encourage thousands of state workers in Massachusetts to take early retirement is fueling fears of a "brain drain" on Beacon Hill as departing employees take with them decades of experience and institutional knowledge.
The program launched on Monday. In the first three days, 581 workers submitted applications seeking early retirement. The deadline is June 12.
The law caps the number of early retirees at 4,560. If more apply, the priority goes to those with the most years of service.
Baker said he's confident the program will cut the state's payroll by an estimated $172 million in the 2016 fiscal year without requiring massive layoffs while still allowing the core functions of government to continue.
"We're certainly working this one hard. We've got groups of folks across the agencies who are working on this and we've got some lead time here to prepare to make sure that we can do what we need to do to make sure that people's work gets done," Baker said.
Not everyone is so optimistic.
David Holway, president of the National Association of Government Employees, says he's worried about the sudden departure of thousands of experienced state workers.
Holway pointed to the Department of Children and Families. He said NAGE has estimated that about one in six lawyers at the agency may retire early.
"Until they back fill those positions, the rest of the attorneys, who are already overworked, are going to have caseloads that are two or three times the national average," said Holway, whose union represents about 20,000 white collar workers, lawyers and clerical workers in Massachusetts.
"I just don't understand how the governor thinks that state government can function with 4,500 less people," he said.
Holway isn't alone.
Noah Berger, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, said the problem is not just the number of qualified people leaving, but the fact they're all leaving at once - creating a jolt to the system.
"There is a danger of brain drain," Berger said. "If we have four or five thousand people leave rapidly there's a danger that a lot of those people may have skills and expertise that are difficult to replace."
Even if the state ends up hiring back a portion of those who retire, they will face a learning curve, and that could end up costing the state, he said.
If the Department of Revenue were to lose a number of individuals with years of experience specializing in holding companies accountable for paying their full taxes, Berger said, newer employees without that experience might not have as much success at first.
Advocates outside state government are also leery about the turnover.
Environmental League of Massachusetts President George Bachrach said cuts to the Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation and Recreation have already forced to major staff cuts and reduced the capacity to cover basic maintenance of public lands.
"These agencies now stand to lose hundreds of more staff due to early retirement programs," he said.
The early retirement programs is limited to executive branch employees under the control of the governor's office.
That's just fine with state Treasurer Deb Goldberg - who, like Baker, just took office this year.
Goldberg said she understands why the governor pushed lawmakers to adopt the proposal as a way to balance the state budget.
"On the other hand, you have to learn how to function with less and with less experienced folks. We are in the customer service business, so it's a challenge and you don't get to select who retires and who doesn't," she said.
Baker said it's not the first time the state has used early retirement to curb spending. The Republican, who served under former GOP Govs. William Weld and Paul Cellucci, said he was on Beacon Hill during an early retirement push in the 1990s.
Baker had left the Statehouse when a second effort was employed in the 2000s, but Baker said he kept an eye on the process. He said in both cases, the number of people who retired early was in the same range as he's seeking.
"People made the adjustments that they needed to make to make sure that the government continued to perform," he said.