Itn February, roughly one million residents of Austin, Texas, were told to boil their tap water before drinking it, because for three days, people in one of America’s fastest-growing cities did not have access to clean drinking water. This was the primary reason why the water utility in the city initially failed to notice the problem. The January resignation of twenty employees was the largest in five years.
“We are very challenged right now with our workforce in that we have numerous vacancies,” said Stephanie Sue, Austin’s Water Operations Manager, at a March hearing. “We are asking our staff to do some really important things. They’re working harder than ever and not getting paid as much as their peers are.”
Many employers across the U.S. are saying they can’t find the workers they need, but the public sector is facing some of the biggest hiring problems. Public sector workers skew older—just 8.1% of the federal workforce is younger than 30, compared to 23 percent of the private sector—and older workers retired en masse during the pandemic. MissionSquare Research Institute conducted a survey in December 2021 and found that more than 50% of local state workers were open to the idea of leaving their job to change careers, retire or to leave completely. The top two reasons they are considering leaving their jobs include a more lucrative salary or feeling exhausted from the effects of the pandemic. Many claimed that they had to carry more work since their former colleagues were gone. Because government salaries often can’t match those in the private sector, recruiting new employees is a difficult process. Although private sector employment is higher than March 2019, there are still 400,000 less government employees March 2022 than March 2019. The problems in Austin are a reminder that vacancies within government can have broader consequences than simply reducing the number of hamburgers sold.
The crisis in the public sector is spreading across the nation. In Brunswick, Maine, an ice rink didn’t open this winter because of a shortage of workers in the parks and recreation department. Philadelphia made it mandatory to work overtime, six days a week and required that sanitation employees be paid extra because of staffing problems. Due to difficulties hiring school bus drivers, a charter school in Delaware offered $700 for parents to drive their children to school.
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There are the little things that erode when the government is short-staffed: zoning permits take longer to process, and the wait to get a new driver’s license may be even longer than usual. Long-term problems with government hiring could cause bigger economic issues for the U.S. Workers use public transportation to get around. They also maintain roads and train tracks. Locally, they teach children and help to put out flames. They also create weather forecasts, process taxes and guide planes. Without sufficient government workers, everything stops working well.
“The bottom line is that the people rely on government services, often without realizing it, and the core of the government services on which they rely is the people,” says Don Kettl, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland who studies the public sector. “A neglect of those issues is something that will have an enormous impact on every single citizen in the country.”
On January 26, 2022 in Arlington, Virginia, school buses were parked at Arlington County Bus Depot.
Olivier Douliery—AFP/Getty Images
Massive exodus to the public sector
For decades, demographers have been warning of a “silver tsunami” or “gray wave” in which Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, would retire. But that tsunami didn’t really happen until the pandemic, says Kettl. After seeing their stocks and homes rise, Boomers decided to stop working and retire instead of taking on the risk of COVID-19. 2019 saw 1.5 million Baby Boomers retire. Over twice the number of Baby Boomers retired in 2020. Many of the people who retired were long-time public sector employees who had institutional knowledge and expertise that is hard to replace—especially with public-sector salaries. While some had been working beyond retirement age, many Boomers felt the need to end their careers.
“I have a number of quite senior individuals working for me directly as department heads, they’re all in their mid 50s to early 60s,” says Julia Griffin, the town manager of Hanover, New Hampshire, who is retiring in June. “And I think all of us are feeling that weariness that’s just come from trying to manage in a very dynamic environment with a lot of uncertainty.”
According to Pew Charitable Trusts, New Hampshire had 7.6% less government jobs in July 2021 than July 2019. There are approximately 24 open positions in Hanover’s 158-strong staff, which includes half the police force. It can’t find snow plow drivers or employees for its library, water department, or zoning department. Griffin, who has worked in the public sector for 40 years, thinks that the retirement and health care benefits that once lured people like her into the public sector may not be as important for younger workers, since they don’t plan to be at one employer for their whole careers. And many of Hanover’s jobs require workers to go into an office or physical location, which also isn’t as appealing to younger workers, she says. In the past, Senior Planners in the Zoning Department would have had 20 to 30 applicants. Hanover has two chances to get one today.
“We can’t find the bodies,” she says. “It’s not that we have a small applicant pool, we have no applicants.”
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The town has so many vacancies in its after school program—five—that Griffin has asked parks and recreation staffers to work at the after school program from 3 p.m. onwards to fill the gaps. A retirement in the town’s water division has meant that there’s only one employee maintaining the water distribution system instead of two. With so much trouble finding police officers, Hanover is thinking of discontinuing some longtime police services, like performing checks on people’s homes when they’re on vacation or helping people who have gotten locked out of their cars. Griffin started researching autonomous snow plows because it’s been so hard to find drivers. The town may wait to plow until there is three inches of snow on the ground, rather than one—something that could cause more car accidents and irk residents, even if they don’t want to pay more in taxes to raise driver pay.
These retirements have created a vicious cycle where overworked government workers can’t do their jobs as thoroughly because they’re short-staffed, which frustrates residents. This frustrates public sector workers and makes them want to go.
“The more short-staffed you get, the more people resign,” says Heather Bollinger, a nurse at San Francisco General, the city’s public hospital. For nurses, short-staffing can be dangerous, she says—for example, a patient who was intubated came out of sedation unexpectedly and tried to pull out his breathing tube, but there was only one nurse available at the time. To restrain the patient, she had to lay on her stomach.
Overworked employees of the government are beginning to vent their anger across the nation. In San Francisco, city and county workers marched down Market Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, in late March to protest the 3,800 openings across the city and calling on the city to fill San Francisco’s staffing gaps.
“There’s a direct correlation between our quality of life in this city and the lack of staff in our departments,” says Kim Tavaglione, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, which coordinates 150 local unions. “Just look at all the complaints people make about the state of the streets, about trash, about potholes.”
San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s office said, in a statement, that the city has lost workers since the pandemic began, and that it’s hard trouble keeping pace with hiring. The city is attempting to reform its hiring practices to allow the city to hire nurses and behavioral health workers in weeks instead of the 6 to 9 months it used to take, the mayor’s office said.
What cities do to hire?
It is difficult to find younger workers in an economy that has tight budgets. However, private employers can pay more for less. Due to a complex system where pay is determined by experience and certifications, government workers already have caps on the amount they can pay them. Giving government employees raises often means raising taxes. This is not popular among the general public.
There is also a problem with the image of government jobs. Big Tech offers perks such as unlimited vacation, paid college expenses, and even retail discounts, but the government still appears to be a slow and inefficient bureaucracy. Kettl, the Maryland professor, says that his students worry that if they join a large government organization, they’ll just become a “cog in the wheel” and not be able to do anything meaningful.
“When I think about my network, there’s not a lot of people who say, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to graduate and go work in a local government or in the public sector,’” says Gianluca Cairo, who spent much of his career in the public sector in Canada and who now consults local governments on how to retain and recruit more workers. There’s a big gap between what young workers want, and what they think they’ll get in the public sector, which becomes a problem when other industries are giving them what they want, he says.
Modernization is a priority for some cities. Washington, D.C.’s city government started using electronic hiring to do much of their job search. Cairo reports that Columbus, Ohio modernized its payroll system so that less staff was required to perform the same job. However, changes to the public sector take time.
Genaro Baez, who heads human resources for Milwaukee County, has been trying to run the county more like the private sector companies he’s worked for in the past. He says that Milwaukee has a zoo and a park system. However, it is facing stiff competition from malls offering $17 per hour. He’s been able to change the hiring process somewhat, scrapping requirements for 4 year degrees for jobs that don’t necessarily need them, and using a new platform to track applicants and process them more quickly. He’s been thinking a lot about retention, and is training managers to make the government more appealing to all workers, as well as allowing some jobs to be remote. And he sidestepped an archaic rule that the county can’t interview candidates for a position until the ad is taken down by making some positions evergreen.
In local government HR, Baez is not up against company policy—he’s up against laws. Although he wants to improve the salaries of those with high turnover or vacancies like correctional officers, these pay rates are part of civil service statutes. To change them, a bill must pass committee before being ratified and endorsed by the entire board of supervisors. He’s been trying to make some of those changes for years.
Governments are striving to make their workforce more mobile and more efficient by introducing new technology to reduce the number of workers they require. Gartner predicts that governments will spend half a trillion dollars this year in technology to improve the “resilience” of public service. U.S. automation has been a boon. Postal Service sort mail, something employees used to spend hours doing—but that also means carriers spend more time on their feet delivering mail.
And technology can’t replace many of the jobs that are empty right now in local government. “The business of operating a water treatment plant is not something we can fully automate,” Sue, of Austin Water said, at the March hearing. “It’s something we have to rely heavily on our people and invest in our people.” Austin is currently working on a program to help veterans enter the public sector, the city says, and is trying use stipends and other tools to retain its workforce.
Despite all the vacancies, convincing Austin—or any other city—to invest in its people is an uphill battle. After the fourth consecutive boil water advisory in 2004, Austin Water presented two alternatives to the public. The first was to give Austin residents a “goodwill” one-time credit because of the inconvenience caused by having to boil their water for three days. The residential customers would receive $10 and the commercial customers $50. It would cost $3.9 million. The second option was to spend that money to add 12 full-time “core staffing” positions, as well as four support staff and software to modernize its standard operating procedures. It would have cost $3.3million.
These options will be considered by the City Council in the latter part of this month. In a memo, the director of Austin Water recommended that the city implement the enhanced staffing to “reduce the risk of future operational upsets.” He won’t have very long to argue his case. He too has resigned.
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