POINT OF VIEW

City workers needed right now

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New Yorkers in the five boroughs rely on city workers. Some of these dedicated public servants educate children, clean and maintain roadways, protect lives and property, inspect buildings, or connect and counsel those looking for work, to start a business, or to get back on their feet.

These services are essential, and provided by more than 300,000 employees, serving the largest municipal workforce in the nation.

In November, a report from my office found a steady and significant decline in the city’s staffing. A week later, the mayor announced a plan to eliminate about 4,700 vacant positions. This has raised concerns about the city’s ability to continue to deliver high-quality services to New Yorkers at a time when they are critical to the city’s economic recovery.

While city leaders are tasked with navigating these uncertain economic times and finding efficiencies, they must also ensure sufficient staffing levels at city departments to provide capable, reliable and responsive services that New Yorkers need.

Over the last two years, my report found the city’s full-time workforce declined by more than 19,000 employees, or more than 6 percent — the largest staffing decline since the “great recession” of 2008.

What is important to note is that staff decline was not 6 percent across all city agencies and departments. In fact, the corrections department had the greatest loss of employees with a 24 percent decline, followed by the Department of Investigation with 22 percent, and the Taxi & Limousine Commission at just under 21 percent.

Other agencies also experienced a double-digit decline in staff, including the city law department (18 percent), finance department (17 percent), citywide administrative services (16 percent), city planning (15 percent), youth and community development (15 percent), and the probation department at 14 percent. These departments provide some of the most critical and essential services to New Yorkers. Therefore, addressing attrition and hiring must be a priority.

My report also found vacancies rose alarmingly and unevenly across vital areas of the city’s workforce. The vacancy average of 7 percent was up nearly 2 percent from prior to the pandemic, and vacancy rates of more than 20 percent existed at divisions within the social services, education, parks and recreation, homeless services, and mental health and hygiene departments.

This means services for child support, early childhood education, park facility maintenance, and help for the homeless and individuals facing mental health challenges could be disrupted unless more efficient means of providing them are found. 

In response to staffing decline, the city has shown significant efforts to hire to prevent impacts to critical services. In fiscal 2022, the city hired at least 40,000 workers — more than in any year prior. My report noted that all social service agencies are trying to hire, and that the children’s services administration and homeless services ranked among the highest in total job listings.

In October, more than half of the city’s major agencies had external job postings for at least 20 percent of their openings. However, the city has more work to do on this front, as my office found some city agencies cannot hire fast enough to keep up with attrition.

Nearly 49,000 full-time city workers left their jobs last year — a turnover rate of more than 16 percent of the total workforce. Reductions in full-time staffing of more than 13 percent were found among the city’s fire inspection and prevention occupations, financial officers, architects, accountants and auditors, general office clerks, mechanics and repairers, school administration support staff, social workers, investigators and adjustors, managers, and sheriffs.

Now, the city has the difficult task of filling increased vacancies, while ramping up hiring and finding efficiencies. If this historically high attrition is not brought under control, then understaffing will lead to longer wait times and less responsive service.

Any deterioration in city services now would not only stifle the city’s economic recovery, but in each case where a service is not available, lives may be affected. The city should be more transparent in their reporting of how they monitor and assess service performance and quality across their agencies. This is the only way to truly determine the impacts of staffing levels.

The city’s ability to recruit and retain the city’s workforce is fundamental to providing quality services to New Yorkers. It is the balance of these two needs that we have highlighted as a critical issue facing the city’s administration.

A possible recession could further threaten the city’s workforce. If staffing levels are not addressed now, they could create a more troubling picture for the city in the future.

 

The author is the New York state comptroller

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