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Severe staffing problems could cause chaos in Hungarian public administration

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Thousands are leaving their jobs in Hungarian public administration as a new regulation caused outrage by increasing the workload and working hours of bureaucrats while failing to raise salaries as much as it was expected. The government claims everything is under control, the trade union says there is a disaster in the works due to the increased workload, the reduced staff, and the decreased wages.

A new law effective as of March changes the working conditions of those employed in Hungarian public administration. Bureaucrats in ministries, in local, regional, and the central Government Offices, and in the Hungarian State Treasury are affected.

Lunchbreaks are no longer a part of the working hours, adding 30 minutes to each working day that amounts to 14-15 days worth of extra work in a year, and default paid holidays were also reduced from 25 days to just 20. Even though the amendment doubled the number of additional paid holidays employees get after their children, parents still end up working more: the extra hours mean 11 extra days at work even for those with three children, as a reader of ours affected by the new regulation explained. A public employee who prefers to remain unnamed told us that with the increased working hours, work starts at 7:30 and ends at 16:30, which is nine hours altogether - as the law permits a maximum of 12 hours of work per day and 48 per week, nine-hour workdays are becoming almost customary in public administration, an informer told Index:

We only have our old work schedule on Fridays, and with the fewer paid holidays, this means that our yearly salary was reduced by at least 8%.

Government office employees no longer get Cafeteria benefits, and their raise last January was nowhere near what would otherwise have followed from the fact that their salaries have been the same for the past ten years. 

What are government offices?

The county and district government offices were introduced in 2011. They integrated regional administrative bodies into a single, general organisation where departments took over more than a thousand tasks previously handled by separate state agencies.

The government claims everything is fine

Public administration employees were informed about the change in their status, working hours and paid holidays on 15 March 2019. Employees were given five days to decide if they accept the new conditions. If they did not, they could request termination with severance pay. 

Our sources tell us that the mood turned gloomy in government offices after it became apparent that most employees will not be getting a substantial raise, and as some could expect even lower wages, many requested their termination. The trade union of public administration employees confirmed this:

"Termination requests are at an astounding high. Many decided to quit without even having another job opportunity on the horizon. The mass terminations could paralyze several already problematic departments. Many chairs will be empty in two or three weeks, as the government offices permitted those requesting their terminations after learning about their change of status to work for only one month of their two-month notice periods, and they will have to take their remaining paid holidays as well. Many tasks will be left without anyone to perform them."

The government maintains that this will cause no delays in the operation of Hungarian public administration, even if they themselves have admitted:

2500 people requested their termination just in March.

The Prime Minister's Press Office told us that the goal is to minimise bureaucracy and to have fewer bureaucrats who are paid more. 

"THE NUMBER OF PEOPLE WORKING FOR THE STATE SHOULD ONLY BE AS MUCH AS IT IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY."

The government claims that in the central administration, they have abolished 6800 positions and raised the salaries for those remaining by an average of 30%. But as we inquired about the high number of termination requests in regional administration and how the administration will cope with the sudden drop in staff, the Prime Minister's Office admitted that

"An overwhelming majority of those working in the central administration had accepted the new conditions, 2500 people have requested their termination altogether in both the central and the regional administration (at the Government Offices). Due to the job market's strong absorbing power, finding a new workplace is typically not a problem. Only 245 people registered for our Career Bridge Program."

but they also added that "all cases are being handled in the usual manner, so this does not affect the citizens in any way."

The trade union thinks this is no joke

Of course, our question did not concern the current state of affairs, instead, we asked what would happen when the notice periods of the thousands of employees that have thus far requested their termination will run out at roughly the same time. Last year, the government introduced measures to decrease bureaucracy, including a hiring ban in public administration and shortened deadlines. This resulted in an increased workload that might scare away those who could replace the quitting bureaucrats. 

When these measures were introduced, there were approximately 36 thousand people employed by regional administration. In March, over the course of just a month, 2500 people, so around 7% of the total staff rejected the new conditions and requested their termination.

"This is not what we deserve. This is not public service, this is public servitude," a single mother working in a government office told Index. She also told us that under the new conditions, she still makes less than €3 an hour, and she does not know anyone whose salary increased. 

Péterné Boros,the  president of the Trade Union of Hungarian Public Officials, Public Employees and Public Service Workers says that this is a typical case, as those working in central administration have all received raises, but the tens of thousands of bureaucrats actually handling cases day-by-day have not. She told us:

This is what we warned about months ago, this is not a joke, this is severe recklessness.

She added that those affected had been working overtime for months under significant stress. "They were kept in the dark with promises of at least a raise. In many places, employees did not even get minimal information as their bosses could not say anything certain." The trade union has received complaints from every county.

She also explained that besides the lower number of paid holidays, the other big problem spot will be the replacement of those who ended up quitting; the hiring ban introduced last year already made work harder as colleagues who left were never replaced, and in March, a government decision set the maximum number of positions in government offices even lower in every region.

It's safe to say that the offices are probably not planning to replace those who requested their termination in March.

On 21 March 2019, the government ordered changes to the rules of government offices' operation and organisation - the decision cut the number of maximum positions in these offices by 2477. Stakeholders were not involved in this decision, and according to our sources, the order signed by Chief of Staff Gergely Gulyás was based on a classified government decree. The impact of this is difficult to estimate - no formal or informal inquiries concerning the exact number of people working at these offices yielded any results, no state agency could or would give us the data. Experts told us that most of these 2477 positions were already empty, so further layoffs are not expected. Still, this points towards there being no intention to refill the ranks.

In some cases that is nearly impossible too due to a lack of experienced and qualified candidates.

According to Borosné, the average wage dropped by 9%, and there is such a general outrage over this that it could lead to a disaster. The remaining employees will have to take over the tasks of their terminated colleagues, and despite the extra workload, there is a €30 fee that employees have to pay if they miss deadlines. 

The extent of the problem is well illustrated by the Budapest Government Office. There are departments where all but two employees out of 20 requested their termination and one where everyone did - including the head of the department. 623 people quit that office in March, and the government order has cut the maximum number of positions by 385 (total remaining: 5407). This alone could jeopardise the operation of the regional government office that handles administration cases concerning healthcare, childcare, ID requests, construction, and many others for more than three million people in the greater Budapest area.

We are in the last minute,

Borosné said, adding that there is a lack of qualified bureaucrats in all counties while the reduction of bureaucracy didn't bring about fewer cases, only fewer people to handle them as the state agencies are starting to go empty.

This article is the summary of these two originals published by Index in Hungarian.

(Cover: Kelemen Zoltán Gergely / MTI)

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