In the five weeks since the Board of Supervisors declared a hiring freeze, Orange County has employed nearly 150 new workers--including 97 full-timers--a move that has enraged employees being laid off and surprised top officials struggling to cut the county budget.
Over protests from the Orange County Employees Assn., the county has repeatedly declined to fill the posts with laid-off workers or transfers from other departments, according to employee representatives and county personnel officials.
Instead, the county looked beyond its 18,000-member work force for all but a handful of the new hires, who filled vacancies ranging from clerical worker to data entry specialist, from office staffer to medical technician.
"I am angry and I'm hurt," said Gloria Sharpless, who was recently laid off from the county's General Services Agency. "It's all mixed up. It's not fair. It's just not fair."
County officials said many of the positions filled during the hiring freeze were critical to the health and safety of county residents and insisted most new hires have special skills not possessed by workers who will lose their jobs in coming weeks as a result of the county's financial crisis.
But Ken Mays, a manager with the county's Human Resources Department, acknowledged that a wide range of positions are being filled, and not all of them require special skills.
Six of the new hires are staffers for the county's two new supervisors, Marian Bergeson and Jim Silva, both of whom said they were unaware that the county had hired so many new people.
"It seems that the spigot is still open and needs to be turned off," said Silva, whose office has hired an executive secretary and two assistants. "I thought there was a freeze."
Bergeson, who also hired three new staffers, all of them new to the county work force, said: "If you have valuable staff positions that have to be filled, you have to fill them."
It is exactly such positions, said representatives of the employees association, that should be filled by workers already losing their jobs as the county tries to plug a $172-million budget gap over the next six months.
"We think the county should do anything it can to lower the number of people going out the door," said Tobye Lovelace, an association spokeswoman. "That goes back to some of the things we contend, which is there is some favoritism and discrimination going on."
Nearly 40 of the new workers were hired by Sheriff Brad Gates, a member of the three-person management council that recommended drastic personnel cuts to the Board of Supervisors last month.
Of the new hires in the Sheriff's Department, 30 are deputy trainees bound for the Sheriff's Basic Training Academy. Others are security officers for county facilities, forensic science workers and office staff--including Gates' new executive secretary, whose first day on the job was Thursday.
Gates declined to comment on his department's hiring practices in the wake of the Dec. 8 freeze. But Assistant Sheriff Doug Storm--who noted that some new hires were already in the works when the freeze was announced--said they should be weighed against the 65 job offers his department rescinded.
Supervisor William G. Steiner said he was surprised to hear of the continued hiring but noted that the county has also rescinded 190 job offers since the freeze went into effect. Some new hires may be cost-effective, he said.
"Obviously, some vacant positions will continue to be filled," he said, "because it doesn't make sense to pay an abundance of overtime."
Mays said the Human Resources department doesn't fill vacant posts. It merely processes the paperwork. The job of hiring is generally left to the five supervisors and the nearly two dozen heads of county departments.
Along with the supervisors, at least one department head seemed unaware of the number of new hires throughout the county and in his own department.
Larry Leaman, the county's director of Social Services, said many of the 16 new people hired by his department were vital to the welfare of abused and neglected children. Newly hired counselors at the Orangewood Children's Home, for instance, provide a service that cannot be postponed, he said.
Staffing shortages at Orangewood have become so critical, Leaman added, that workers are being ordered to work overtime in violation of the county's new no-overtime policy.
"There needs to be the ability to fill absolutely critical positions," he said.
But Leaman wondered aloud about the wisdom of some secretarial and office positions being filled during such trying times.
"I guess each department would have to" decide, he said.
Sharpless, a 60-year-old office worker, was more startled than Leaman. Since receiving her layoff notice earlier this month, she's been spending a great deal of time canvassing the county government, searching for an opening.
"I have, myself, personally, been calling anybody and everybody I know in the different agencies, to find something for myself," she said. "And I'm getting the same answer over and over. Hiring freeze, hiring freeze, hiring freeze."