The staff shortage crisis in the New York agencies

Photo illustration: braked; Photo: Getty

Mayor Eric Adams took to Cipriani Wall Street, teeming with the city’s civic and business elite, to announce a highly ambitious, thinly outlined plan to revitalize the city’s business districts. “We’re going to show the country why we are New York, and this new New York conversation will show how together we’re running all cylinders on the same engine to reclaim our economy, reclaim our city, and we’re not leaving anyone behind,” he said . This plan would include more bus lanes, electric vehicle charging stations and the conversion of official buildings to residential use. In recent weeks, he announced an even more ambitious goal of building 500,000 housing units over the next decade. That would be an outstanding achievement for a government that is yet to find legacy-defining policies akin to Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten after a year.

But a deepening crisis threatens these bold plans: there just aren’t enough people in the city’s public administrations. The City Audit Office’s office released a report in December that found the overall vacancy rate at municipal agencies to be 8 percent, four times the 2 percent rate before COVID. Certain central agencies are struggling a lot more. The Ministry of Construction has almost 23 percent of its positions vacant. Urban planning is 22 percent. Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and Finance are each at 18 percent. Cyber ​​Command, tasked with protecting the city’s cybersecurity, is at 36 percent. Perhaps the most extreme case is the Department of Social Services’ Child Support Services division, which is almost half-empty. “There are empty desks and cubicles everywhere,” said an employee of the Ministry of Construction, who asked not to be named. “Morale is very low.” It doesn’t help the remaining employees that the mayor announced in November that he would cut some vacancies by up to 50 percent.

Many cities across America are struggling with similar bottlenecks. City workers are being lured away by private sector salaries, particularly in specialized fields such as law and engineering. Pandemic burnout has pushed some younger employees out of the workforce altogether. The lure of a healthy retirement in 20 or 30 years is just not enough to get them into the office five days a week. (Federal employees can continue to work remotely, as can employees from other governments, such as Connecticut’s.)

But what is happening in New York is made worse by Adams himself. His strong line against hybrid and remote work for city employees, a continuation of de Blasio’s policies, is driving employees away. Salaries for new hires and transfers between agencies and the city council were deliberately kept low; Applicants were offered the lowest possible salary on the salary scale. A strict public-sector immunization mandate that allows for few exceptions — also a holdover from de Blasio’s tenure — continues to weed out the 10 percent of adults citywide who are not fully vaccinated. Younger city officials say they are also disheartened by the extent to which many agencies are run by patronage officials, people who owe their positions to their ties to the mayor rather than to professional experience. They include now-former Construction Department Commissioner Eric Ulrich (who resigned after being investigated for illegal gambling and alleged mafia links) and Transport Department Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez, who does not appear to have the agency management or transportation level Experience of former manager, according to some employees.

With HPD, which develops and maintains the city’s stock of affordable housing, it seems likely that the shortage will hamper the Adams administration’s attempts to develop the new housing the city desperately needs. On a day-to-day basis, a depleted case manager workforce struggles to get low-income people into available housing. “We don’t have the people to keep up with all the work that we have,” said a former HPD worker whose Section 8 vouchers department was responsible for 100,000 people. (The staffer left behind the low pay and lack of a remote work option.) A current HPD staffer, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that case managers simply can’t keep up. “On the casework side, the line worker side, people get really fucking slammed with stuff. There are too many cases to process,” they said. “There’s a mountain that people have been digging their way out of for a year or two with no end in sight.” To make matters worse, the starting salary for case managers is around $38,000, not much more than the city minimum wage of $15 paid over a year. If a clerk cannot determine how much HPD will help with the rent, landlords can increase the rent for tenants who should be eligible for subsidies. “People with low incomes, migrant families and people with children are particularly affected,” says the employee. The consequences could be much bigger across the board; They also predicted that HPD could lose federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development due to its underperforming.

In the city’s legal department, attorneys are rapidly moving into the private sector, where salaries are much higher and remote work is tolerated. The number of employees has fallen by at least 22 percent. A department lawyer said the biggest problem is that there are hardly enough lawyers to handle investigative requests and testimonies when cases go to trial. Violations can result in legal sanctions and loss of revenue for the city. Because of this, more cases are settled than go to court. The positive litigation department has also atrophied: the government can’t bring as many lawsuits against those who have damaged city property or breached contracts.

“We are losing experienced attorneys and not hiring new ones because we are not competitive at the moment,” the attorney said. “I have contacted law school colleagues and other attorneys who have expressed an interest who have always been interested in government law and may be interested in our work. When they hear what the situation is really like and look at the pay and the lack of flexibility, they don’t come here.”

To fill that gap, Adams has announced a grant to bring private attorneys into city agencies whose salaries are paid by outside firms. But staff say the grant won’t stem the tide of departures or bring in enough attorneys for the department to get anywhere near its pre-pandemic capacity.

Agencies that don’t rely on specialized labor are also struggling. In the Department of Cultural Affairs, program officers who process grant applications for non-profit cultural and arts organizations disappear. One of the remaining officers has a case count of 160 to 170 organizations, while the officer typically had a little over half that number before Adams became mayor. This has caused months of delays that employees expect will worsen in 2023. “There’s no motivation here to be the best worker you can be,” said a Cultural Affairs official.

Eager officials who want to make a name for themselves in city government – to be part of something big or memorable – see a big difference between de Blasio, who was ridiculed in the press but promised progressive large-scale governance, and Adams, who did this showed significantly less interest in expanding early childhood care or strengthening the city’s social security system.

“It’s really difficult to hire really qualified people,” said a senior agency official. “People are willing to come into government when there is a vision and a goal that everyone is working towards. What are you working towards? When you combine that with inflexibility and working from home, it’s a deal-breaker.” When management makes headlines with its big ideas — like the one Adams announced at Cipriani — agency staff wonder how they’re going to deal with diminished and demoralized staff are to be implemented.

Comptroller Brad Lander says Adams should take on remote work to make the city more competitive. But he said the mayor could go even further to prioritize recruitment. He pointed to Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who has appointed a chief talent officer to recruit city workers and fill vacancies. Adams has a rat tsar, so why not a hiring tsar? “Some cities and states have aggressively tried to address this, and New York has not,” Lander said. “Maybe the opposite.”

However, Adams spokespeople say there is no problem. “Mayor Adams has built a diverse and highly talented team focused on delivering results and getting things done for New Yorkers,” said Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Adams. “The city has no operational impact on services with the job openings in place, but we are recruiting aggressively for every vacancy.”

While it is true that there are still more than 200,000 municipal employees and there is no immediate danger of a mass exodus that would bring down the government itself, the greater risk is what happens later. Lander, for example, wonders if Cyber ​​Command’s staff shortage will expose the city to a devastating hack. Or if one day a building might collapse, it has never been properly inspected.

And what about Adams’ ambitious agenda? The former HPD employee says leadership is still trying to engage the remaining workforce with bigger goals. But the lack of staff makes it almost impossible to push them forward.

“Nobody buys it anymore. Nobody cares. They don’t say what we want: a little more pay and remote work,” the employee said. “If leadership doesn’t listen, what good does it do?”