By Ari Ephraim Feldman, September 9, 2022

City Council members pushed administration officials in a hearing Friday to think of new and creative ways to increase the speed of hiring and improve pay and flexibility for city workers to help fill more than 24,000 vacant city positions.

The hearing came as the city is facing a hiring crisis, with key city agencies and offices reporting significant staffing shortfalls. Elected leaders and advocates have warned of likely slowdowns in safety inspections of housing, investigations into human rights abuses and granting needed permits for restaurants and other businesses.

Already, NY1 partner newsroom The City reported, a lack of staff in a key housing department office has hobbled approval for new construction and enforcement of the building code.

The afternoon hearing was raucous at times, with council members expressing confusion over policies they characterized as clearly slowing down hiring rates. Conservative council members earned sustained applause for questions on the number of city workers fired or put on unpaid leave for refusing to comply with the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

At one point, Councilwoman Gale Brewer, chair of the committee on oversight and investigations, asked an official why the city’s budget office needed to review each agency’s new hires individually, a process that the official said can take up to 30 days.

“Maybe you need more staff to be able to do it,” Brewer said, to laughs from people attending the hearing.

Overall, 8% of the city’s roughly 300,000 full-time positions are not filled. The city’s health department, which is managing the monkeypox vaccination rollout, has 1,189 open positions, while the Department of Social Services, which is dealing with a rising shelter population, has 2,246 vacancies.

Agency officials who testified at the hearing, called by the council’s committees on civil service and oversight and investigations, touted recent efforts to increase the speed of hiring. The city doubled the amount of time, to 180 days, that agencies now have to fill a position before they need to once again seek approval from the budget office. Later this month, 4,000 people will take a newly created civil service exam that allows candidates to try out for 10 positions with a single test, the first such exam of its kind.

Barbara Carnival-Dannenberg, the deputy commissioner for human capital at Department of Citywide Administrative Services, attributed the city’s labor issues to a nationwide hunt for workers.

“New York City has not been spared by this labor shortage,” Carnival-Dannenberg said. “We are recruiting aggressively to fill these current vacancies.”

Yet the officials’ testimony also revealed what council members characterized as weak points in the city’s hiring process. Currently, the median wait to receive results from a civil service exam is 224 days, officials said. The city provides lists of civil service exams to public high schools, but officials at the hearing offered no information on any direct efforts to encourage students to apply for jobs that only require a high school degree. Collective bargaining agreements with unions also limit the starting salaries agencies can offer to new hires.

Half of the city’s labor agreements have expired, and the other half will expire by the end of the next fiscal year. Daniel Pollak, a commissioner at the Department of Labor Relations, declined to say in the hearing whether the city would seek more flexibility in the starting salaries it could offer in negotiations with public service unions.

Recent reports have also highlighted hiring and staffing policies that stem from Mayor Eric Adams’ efforts to reduce spending and push workers back into the office that council members framed as counterproductive to reducing the staffing shortfall. NY1 partner newsroom Gothamist reported Friday that agency recruiters are being instructed to offer new hires the lowest-allowed starting salaries.

Queens Councilman Robert Holden, a Democrat, earned loud applause from people attending the hearing when he asked the officials if they had a total number of city employees lost due to the vaccine mandate. Carnival-Dannenberg said she did not have the figure.

Carnival-Dannenberg also sidestepped repeated questions over whether her agency had discussed rescinding the vaccine mandate with City Hall.

“If there were to be discussions, our agencies would be involved in part of the discussions,” she said. “We have had discussions regarding the current vaccine mandate, which is currently in effect.”

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