NCDOT Chief Operation Officer Bobby Lewis said the pending layoffs were precautionary. They're being done to keep the agency's expenditures above what they call the statutory floor.
"We're not running out of money, but when we get to the statutory floor we are not allowed enter into new contracts and execute new work until we get above the floor," Lewis said.
Lewis said 1,100 positions are being reviewed. He said he expects around 50 percent of those to actually be laid off.
The exact number and the exact positions have not yet been determined. Lewis said the bulk of the jobs under review are operation and maintenance type positions; they are contract and temporary workers. However, NCDOT is also slowing down filling full-time positions.
Lewis said the agency has been working for months to control its expenditures, but with hurricane season arriving, the agency needs to make sure it can respond appropriately.
NCDOT said from 2004-2016, it spent on average $66 million a year in weather recovery. From 2017 through 2019, the average skyrocketed to more than $220 million on storm-related expenses. The federal government only reimburses for declared disasters.
"We know we have an obligation to the people of North Carolina to keep the roadway safe, so we're trying to do all we can to make sure we can respond at some level," Lewis said. "We're very limited in how we can respond. That's a lot of the reason why we're trying to reduce our expenditure now."
As was first reported by News & Observer, high expenses from previous storms and from lawsuits related to a 30-year-old law that was declared unconstitutional is at least partly to blame for NCDOT approaching the statutory floor.
NCDOT said it considers the pending layoffs temporary. The agency hopes to rehire some or all of the workers next year.
"We are certainly seeing some trying times right now," Lewis said. "And that as many of you already know had to delay some contracts over the next year."
NCDOT released the following statement about the pending layoffs:
State law requires the Department of Transportation to maintain a balance of $282 million in its transportation funds. Because of hurricane-related expenses and slow disaster repayment from the federal government, NCDOT is struggling to stay above the mandated fund balance.
These unbudgeted expenditures and slow federal repayment have forced the department to further tighten its belt. Going forward, NCDOT intends to slow the filling of vacant positions. It will retain temporary and embedded employees only when they are assigned to essential functions on near-term projects. Also the department will limit travel to mission-critical activities.
It is important to note these austerity measures apply predominately to projects and activities paid for by the Highway Fund. Projects that are financed by bonds or federal grants will continue as scheduled.
This situation is not affected by the budget impasse between Governor Cooper and the General Assembly.
"There's certainly an increase of frequency of storms, and there's certainly more cost to those storms," Lewis said. "Whether it's material cost or just being able to respond quickly and doing it fast, there's a cost of that, too. We're about 55 percent reimbursed right now on the federal side for Matthew, and we're only about 11 percent reimbursed so far for Florence."
EDITOR'S NOTE: The story has been corrected to reflect that hundreds, not thousands, of employees will lose their jobs.