By Elizabeth Kim, September 9, 2022
A mounting staffing crisis facing New York City, the country’s largest municipal employer, is raising questions about City Hall’s approach to hiring and whether the city is doing enough to compete for workers at a time when many critical agencies are being stretched thin.
Most city workers have blamed the city’s abnormally high attrition and difficulty in hiring on a lack of a remote working or hybrid option.
However, some current and former city agency officials and hiring managers say the challenge in hiring top job applicants also comes from a relatively recent practice of lowballing new hires. According to a source in city government, the policy stems from a union rule that was rarely enforced until the pandemic spurred belt-tightening measures from City Hall.
Six people familiar with the hiring process spanning across five different agencies, including the Department of Transportation and Department of Sanitation, told Gothamist they were directed to offer candidates with no prior experience working in New York City government the minimum salary of the range published on the job posting.
The individuals who spoke to Gothamist did not want to be named for fear of retribution from the City Hall and concerns over their job prospects.
All recall that the policy was verbally communicated, although one city worker shared several emails dating back to August 2021 from their human resources department that said employees in their first two years of city service should be paid at a “new hire rate.”
The practice, they said, prevents their agencies from hiring the most qualified candidates at a moment when the private sector has ramped up hiring following a pandemic-spurred lull, often with offers of higher pay and, in many cases, flexibility around remote work.
“They are shooting themselves in the foot,” one municipal employee said.
For example, a job posting for a “transportation specialist” within the Division of Transportation Planning and Management lists a salary range for the position between $67,757 and $80,000, meaning that someone who has not worked for the city before could only earn the lowest amount, according to the hiring policy. Candidates hired for such a position typically have master’s degrees, according to one of the people who spoke about the city’s hiring process.
Across the country, state and city governments have lagged private companies in hiring, fueled by a mix of retirements, changing workplace preferences brought on by the pandemic, and a stronger labor market. The trend may bode poorly for recruiting the next generation of public servants.
The city’s labor shortage and hiring woes have drawn the attention of the City Council, which scheduled a hearing on Friday about the problems. As reported by THE CITY, Councilmember Gale Brewer, who heads the oversight and investigations committee, has produced a preliminary study exposing widespread vacancies.
In an interview with Gothamist, Brewer said she had also heard complaints from city employees saying they have been asked to pay new hires at the lowest end of the scale.
“There are so many reasons that these positions are not being filled,” she added. “That might be one of them, but there are tons of reasons in my book.”
At a City Council hearing on the issue on Friday, Daniel Pollak, a commissioner at the Department of Labor Relations, attributed the minimum pay requirement for new hires to the collective bargaining agreement.
Asked by Brewer if the administration wants to change those rules during upcoming contract negotiations, Pollak declined to comment on those talks but said that the city was addressing issues of recruitment and retention.
City Hall officials argued that public employers across the country were having difficulty hiring.
“But we want the best,” Brewer shot back.
In a statement, Jonah Allon, a spokesperson for the mayor, said the city’s collective bargaining agreements covering civilian titles “generally have a new hire rate that must be paid to employees with less than two years of city service.”
A source close to City Hall explained that agencies nevertheless had more discretion over the hiring process and salaries prior to the pandemic.
Thea Setterbo, a spokesperson for the city’s largest municipal union, DC37, said the rule — which is also known as a “suppressed minimum” salary for new hires — was something the union agreed to in 2017 as part of negotiations for raises.
But Setterbo added that the rule does not prohibit the city from offering higher salaries for “hard-to-recruit” positions.
Ana Champeny, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission, argues that the city needs to reform its hiring process, which has long been viewed as cumbersome and opaque due to bureaucratic red tape and civil service rules.
Champeny said she has not seen any documentation of minimum pay rules for new hires but described them as ill-advised given the current circumstances.
“In a tight labor market, that would be an impediment to hiring,” she said.
Adams has resisted calls to allow hybrid work for city workers. He has touted the shrinking municipal workforce as the intended effect of a more fiscally responsible approach to managing the city.
During his testimony before the New York State Financial Control Board this week, Adams said the municipal employee head count was just under 304,000. That represents the city’s smallest workforce since 2010, when there were roughly 302,000 city workers, according to the Citizens Budget Commission.
Under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, the number of city employees rose to nearly 327,000 in 2019. Around 6,000 of those positions were created as a result of the expansion of universal pre-K.
For the 2023 fiscal year, the city is budgeted for a workforce head count of around 333,000, meaning that there are well over 20,000 vacant positions that need filling.
Champeny said the city does not need to fill all of those vacancies but that attrition was a “blunt tool” in trying to achieve cost savings.
“Are you getting reductions in head count where you need it?” she said, adding, “Attrition is getting to a point where it’s negatively impacting services in certain areas.”
In July, Gothamist reported that half of the city’s sexual health clinics had suspended their services at the start of the pandemic and could not resume them because of staffing challenges. Capacity remains limited.
Earlier this year, a study by the Independent Budget Office drew attention to understaffing at the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the police oversight agency charged with investigating law enforcement conduct.
Staffing shortages at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development have slowed affordable housing construction and enforcement, according to reporting by THE CITY and The New York Post.