Staff shortage crisis in New York City agencies

photo illustration: curb; Photo: Getty

Mayor Eric Adams has traveled to Cipriani Wall Street, packed with the city’s civic and business elite, to promote a highly ambitious and meticulously planned plan to revitalize the city’s business districts. “We will show the country why we are in New York, and this New York Conversation will show how we get all cylinders together on the same engine to get our economy back, take our city back, and leave no one behind,” he said. This plan would include more bus lanes, electric vehicle charging stations, and conversion of official buildings to residential uses. In recent weeks, he announced a more ambitious goal of building 500,000 housing units over the next decade. This would be a remarkable achievement for an administration that, one year later, has yet to find a legacy-setting policy to follow, the equivalent of Bill de Blasio’s blanket kindergarten.

However, a deepening crisis threatens these bold plans: there are not enough people in the public agencies charged with running the city. The city comptroller’s office released a report in December that found the overall vacancy rate at municipal agencies to be 8 percent, four times the pre-COVID 2 percent rate. Some pivot agencies struggle much more than that. The Department of Buildings has approximately 23 percent of its positions vacant. City planning increased by 22 percent. Housing preservation and development (HPD) and financing are 18 percent each. Cyber ​​Command, which is responsible for protecting the city’s cyber security, is at 36 percent. Perhaps the most extreme case is the child support services section of the Department of Social Services, which is nearly half empty. “There are empty desks and cubicles everywhere,” said a building management employee who asked not to be named. Morale is very low. It doesn’t help the rest of the staff that the mayor announced in November that he would cut some job openings by as much as 50 percent.

Plenty of cities across America suffer from a similar shortage. City workers attract private sector salaries, particularly those in specialized fields such as law and engineering. Pandemic burnout has prompted some younger employees to leave the workforce altogether. The lure of a healthy pension after 20 or 30 is not enough to keep them in the office five days a week. (Federal employees can still work remotely, as can employees of other governments, such as Connecticut.)

But what is happening in New York is compounded by Adams himself. His long-standing line against hybrid and remote working for city employees, a continuation of de Blasio’s policy, is driving employees out. Salaries were kept deliberately low for new hires and those transferring between agencies and city council; Applicants received the lowest possible salary on the pay scale. A strict public-sector vaccine mandate that allows for some exemptions — also part of the de Blasio term — still excludes the 10 percent of adults across the city who are not fully vaccinated. Younger workers in the city say they are also frustrated with the degree to which many agencies are aided by crony appointees, people who mostly owe their positions to their connections with the mayor rather than professional experience. They include former Department of Buildings commissioner Eric Ulrich (who resigned after being investigated for illegal gambling and alleged mob ties) and Department of Transportation commissioner Dannis Rodriguez, who does not appear to have agency or transportation management level. The experience of former bosses, according to some employees.

At HPD, which develops and maintains the city’s affordable housing stock, it seems likely that the shortage will impede the Adams administration’s attempts to develop the new housing the city desperately needs. On a daily basis, the depleted case management workforce struggles to get low-income people into available housing. “We don’t have the people who can keep up with all the work we’re doing,” said a former HPD employee, whose department oversaw Section 8 vouchers for 100,000 people. (The employee was left with low pay and no option to work remotely.) A current employee in the project management department, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that case managers simply can’t keep up anymore. “In terms of handling issues, line staff, people are really fond of things. There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed,” they said. The starting point for case managers is about $38,000, which isn’t much more than the city’s minimum wage of $15 that was paid over the course of a year.If a case manager can’t help determine how much MID will help with rent, landlords can raise rent on renters who must qualify for benefits.“This is affected mostly by low-income people, immigrant families, and people with children,” the employee said. “The consequences could be much greater; they also predicted the Department of Housing and Housing would lose federal funding from Department of Housing and Urban Development for its low performance.

In the city’s law department, lawyers are quickly leaving to work in the private sector, where salaries are much higher and remote work is tolerated. Head count decreased by at least 22 percent. A lawyer from the department said the biggest problem is that there are barely enough attorneys to comply with discovery requests and affidavits when cases go to court. Failure to comply can result in penalties from the courts and loss of income for the city. For this reason, more cases are settled rather than litigated in court. The positive litigation oath is also gone: The government can’t bring many cases against those who have damaged city property or broken contracts.

“We are losing experienced lawyers and we are not attracting new ones because we are not able to compete at the moment,” said the lawyer. “I’ve had colleagues from law school and other attorneys reach out, express interest, who have always loved state law and might be interested in the work we do. When they hear what it’s really like and look at pay and lack of flexibility, they won’t come here.”

Adams, in an effort to fill this gap, announced a fellowship to bring in private attorneys to city agencies, with stipends from outside firms. Still, employees say the fellowship won’t stop the wave of departures or bring in enough lawyers so the administration can operate at anything close to its pre-pandemic capacity.

Even agencies that do not rely on specialized workers suffer. At the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, program officers who process grant applications for cultural and arts nonprofits are disappearing. One remaining officer has a caseload of 160 to 170 organizations, when an officer usually had just over half that number before Adams became mayor. This has translated into months-long delays that staff expect will get worse in 2023. “There is no drive here to be the best worker you can be,” said one cultural affairs officer.

Keen staffers who want to make their mark in city government — to be part of something big or memorable — see a stark difference between de Blasio, who has been derided by the press but promised progressive governance on a grand scale, and Adams, who has shown far less interest in expanding early childhood care. Or strengthen the city’s social safety net.

“It’s really hard to hire really skilled people,” said one high-ranking agency employee. “People are willing to go into government if there is a vision and a goal that everyone is working towards. What are you working towards? You pair that with inflexibility with working from home, it’s a deal-breaker.” When management makes headlines for its big ideas — the one Adams announced in Cipriani, for example — agency staff wonder how they will be executed with weak, frustrated employees.

Comptroller Brad Lander says Adams should embrace remote work to make the city more competitive. But he said the mayor could go further to prioritize recruitment. He pointed to Michelle Wu, the mayor of Boston, who has appointed a chief talent officer to attract city workers and fill vacancies. Adams has a rat caesar, so why not a hiring caesar? “Some cities and states have been bold in trying to address this, and New York has not,” Lander said. “Maybe the other way around.”

However, spokespeople for Adams say there is no problem. “Mayor Adams has built an extremely diverse and talented team that is laser focused on achieving results and getting things done for New Yorkers,” said Fabian Levy, an Adams spokesperson. “The City has not experienced any operational impact on services with these vacancies, but we are aggressively recruiting for each opening.”

While it is true that there are still more than 200,000 municipal employees and no immediate danger of the kind of mass exodus that would stop the government itself, the greater danger is what happens later in the future. Lander, for example, wonders if Cyber ​​Command’s staffing shortage will expose the city to devastating hacking. Or if a building could collapse, one day, that wasn’t properly checked.

And what about Adams’ ambitious agenda? The former HPD employee says the leadership is still trying to rally the remaining workforce behind bigger goals. But the shortage of staff made it almost impossible to squeeze them in.

“Nobody buys it anymore. Nobody cares. They don’t say what we want: more pay and remote work,” the employee said. “If leadership isn’t listening, what’s the point?”

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