‘Great Resignation’ crisis impedes city operations with 1 in 6 posts vacant

This article was originally published on Tuesday, December 20, 2022, in The Daily Californian. You can read an archived version at the Internet Archive.

The city of Berkeley is in crisis as it struggles to hire and retain the workers necessary to maintain city operations.

16.21% of available positions within the city are vacant as of June 2022, according to city data presented by Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley at the city council’s regular meeting Dec. 13. The low levels of staffing have increased strain on remaining city employees and have limited the services many city departments are able to provide, she noted.

“The yearly net loss of employees has not been stemmed, and our staffing crisis continues to worsen,” Williams-Ridley said at the meeting. “They’re seeing longer hours, increased workload and lower morale, and we are seeing more illness and use of sick leave across the city.”

Many departments are struggling

With one-sixth of city positions unfilled — up to one-third in some departments — city agencies have found it difficult to serve city residents.

“Staffing shortages are impacting city services across the board, as well as in my district,” said Berkeley Vice Mayor Ben Bartlett. “You’ll see it in terms of street abatement or homeless services, things like that.”

Indeed, the public works department — which is facing a vacancy rate of 15% and morale in the bottom 15% of comparable public agencies — has delays and backlogs that are months to years long, according to Williams-Ridley. She noted that public works “cleanups” of encampments of unhoused people have also been delayed.

The fire department, with a vacancy rate of 24%, saw a 275% increase in forced overtime hours in fiscal year 2021, and some firehouses have had to be temporarily closed due to insufficient staffing, according to Williams-Ridley.

Police officers and dispatchers alike have also faced forced overtime and unplanned extensions of their shifts, Williams-Ridley added.

“The statement from some of them has been that they’re looking at other jurisdictions that offer a better quality of life,” Williams-Ridley said during the meeting. “The mandatory overtime is something that cannot be continued.”

The police department, which has a vacancy rate of 25%, has also seen extended response times, decreased patrols and reduced oversight. Due to vacancies, they have prioritized addressing violent crime over property crime and responded to fewer calls relating to unhoused people.

The health, housing and community services department has a vacancy rate of 25%, but 39% of its mental health professional positions are vacant. Physical and mental health services for vulnerable community members have been delayed, and overwork has reduced the quality of services as well, Williams-Ridley noted.

The inability to fulfill contractual obligations has also threatened the grants that make up 75% of the department’s budget.

The finance department, which has a vacancy rate of 33%, has a lack of proper supervision and control that raises the risk of errors and fraud, Williams-Ridley added.

“Vendor payments were late,” Williams-Ridley said during the meeting. “That is not something that we’re used to seeing here in the city of Berkeley.”

The Great Resignation comes to Berkeley

In Berkeley, employee attrition has outpaced new hires every year since the start of the pandemic. From 2020 to today, the city has lost 555 employees due to retirements and resignations but only hired 378. Applications for city employment dropped 40% over pre-pandemic figures, and nearly 20% of city employees are eligible for retirement — a figure that will climb to 28% by 2025.

However, Berkeley’s staffing crisis is hardly unique. In the East Bay, other governments have felt similar crunches, with Oakland and Richmond also experiencing vacancy rates of approximately 16%.

The city’s trouble in recruiting and retaining employees is part of a nationwide “Great Resignation” spurred by COVID-19, according to Bartlett.

“After two years of being at home for the pandemic, people sort of reassess their work-life balance, and the former bargain that people benefited from is not the same,” Bartlett said. “Now, they want a different part.”

Bartlett noted that there was likely little more the city could have done to avoid the crisis, as it was quick to allow remote work and offered “generous” benefits during the pandemic. He claimed the city’s April 2020 hiring freeze on nonessential employees was an “operational tweak” and did not contribute significantly to the crisis.

In addition to these factors, the staffing challenges may be self-perpetuating, according to Williams-Ridley.

“The sheer number of vacancies lead to more vacancies as departures increase due to overwork, creating a hiring churn,” Williams-Ridley explained during the meeting.

Great problems call for great solutions

In 2021, the Berkeley Public Library experienced many of the staffing challenges other city agencies are still facing today. At this time last year, the library’s vacancy rate was 28%, up from 17% before the pandemic, according to library spokesperson Aimee Reeder. Many staff worked extra hours and in different locations to allow the public access to library materials.

Still, due to staffing shortages, the library cut Sunday and evening hours, and the art and music collections on the Central Library’s fifth floor were closed to the public.

But today, the fifth floor is open and hosting concerts, and the library is prioritizing reinstating evening hours early next year. The vacancy rate has dropped to 9%, and Reeder expects it will drop further next year as new employees are set to begin work.

“The City had a hiring freeze for 2020 and into Spring 2021 so we are especially proud of how hard we have worked within the last year to get to 9%,” Reeder said in an email. “We hope that the staffing impacts due to Covid-19 and ‘Great Resignation’ is behind us!”

The decrease in the vacancy rate was not the result of any change in policy apart from the lifting of the hiring freeze, Reeder noted. The recruitment successes were instead fueled by the work of human resources staff, supervisors and other employees who assisted in the hiring process.

For the rest of the city, recovering from the staffing crisis may be more challenging, however.

At the city council meeting, Williams-Ridley outlined a plan to abate the staffing crisis. As part of the plan, the city has already hired new human resources officers and expanded testing capacity by hiring more proctors.

In addition, Williams-Ridley has proposed remote testing to streamline the application process and a “Berkeley is Hiring” social media and advertising campaign.

“In order to be competitive with other public agencies, Berkeley must become a greater online presence and launch a robust recruitment campaign across digital platforms,” she said at the meeting.

To attract more candidates, Williams-Ridley also proposed adjusting salaries and implementing signing bonuses and referral incentives for hard-to-recruit departments. She aims to provide more benefits to city employees, such as more flexible work schedules, administrative leave allowances, childcare, training opportunities and transportation subsidies.

Williams-Ridley offered an “optimistic” and “realistic” assessment of the plan, noting it would hopefully allow hiring rates to overcome attrition rates by 10% in 2023 and by 50% in 2024. Ultimately, she hopes it will drop the vacancy rate below 10% by 2025.

A full report will be presented to the city council in January, and the recruitment campaign will be launched by March, according to Williams-Ridley.

“Within three years, we can bring the city’s overall vacancy rate into the single digits,” Williams-Ridley said during the meeting. “It will take time, it will take resources and tremendous effort for both the council, our staff and all of us in our leadership roles to ensure that we are able to move beyond the space of what we call the Great Resignation.”

Last updated Wednesday, December 21, 2022. Written by Gabe Classon.

Tags: Aimee Reeder, Ben Bartlett, Berkeley City Council, Berkeley Fire Department, Berkeley is Hiring, Berkeley Police Department, Berkeley Public Library, Central Library, COVID-19, Dee Williams-Ridley, Finance Department, Great Resignation, Health Housing and Community Services Department, Public Works Department