New York’s Difficulty in Filling Job Vacancies Has Hurt City Services

New York City’s inability to address a shortage of municipal workers has helped cause city services to suffer, from delivering meals to older adults to processing public assistance benefits, according to findings issued Monday by the comptroller’s office.

Of the 15 agencies with the highest employee vacancy rates, nine have failed to meet immediate and short- and long-term performance targets, leading to difficulty in delivering key city services, according to the report, which was released in conjunction with a City Council budget hearing on Monday.

“If you have high vacancy rates at human service agencies where the people you have translate pretty directly into getting meals to homebound seniors or approving food stamps or cash assistance applications, it’s going to take longer to get to those applications,” Brad Lander, the city comptroller, said in an interview.

New York City is the largest municipal employer in the country but has struggled to recruit and retain employees. The city’s current employee vacancy rate was 8 percent in December. Before the pandemic, the city’s vacancy rate was 2 percent. The dearth of employees has led to several crucial city agencies failing to meet its own goals, according to data compiled from the Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.

The Department of Small Business Services, which caters to the 98 percent of city businesses that employ 100 or fewer workers, has a vacancy rate of 32 percent and met only 33 percent of its target goals. With an almost 23 percent vacancy rate, the Department of Buildings — responsible for enforcing the city’s construction codes — met 43 percent of its goals.

With a 20 percent vacancy rate, the Department of Social Services, which oversees the Human Resources Administration and Department of Homeless Services, is meeting just 42 percent of its goals and only 47 percent of its target goals improved over last year.

When the report looked at money allocated for specific purposes and correlated vacancy rates, several other areas of concern emerged. When it comes to early childhood development, the Department of Education, with a 23 percent vacancy rate, met only 17 percent of targets. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development’s office of administration met none of its targets and has a 17 percent vacancy rate.

The city has a bureaucratic and lethargic hiring process that makes it hard to quickly fill vacancies; for example, the city only recently lifted a rule that had allowed an agency to hire one worker only after two have left.

The comptroller’s report suggested that the city expedite hiring, allow hybrid work for appropriate positions, consider adjusting compensation on hard to fill positions and hiring a chief talent retention and recruitment officer. The recommendations mirror those issued in a report last week by the 5Boro Institute, a think tank founded by Mr. Adams’s allies.

“At some point, you can’t manage as a commissioner,” Mr. Lander said, “if you don’t have the people in place to do the work.”

Fabien Levy, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Adams, said the city is facing the same economic headwinds and labor shortages affecting the private sector.

The city’s decision to lift the two-for-one hiring policy, Mr. Levy said, and a shortening of the time to review hires at city agencies will help the city recruit employees more quickly, Mr. Levy said. City agencies also currently have the budgetary ability to fill 23,000 vacant positions.

The report found that a few agencies, such as the Commission on Human Rights and the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, are maintaining target goals in spite of high vacancy rates.

Mr. Lander’s report comes as the City Council holds hearings on Mr. Adams’s $103 billion proposed budget. Diana Ayala, the deputy council speaker, said on Monday that the city should focus on why it’s having a hard time maintaining human services workers and suggested that the city’s resistance to remote work might be part of the problem.

Mr. Adams had been a staunch opponent of remote and hybrid work, saying that it was not helpful to the city’s economy for workers to “stay home in your pajamas all day.” That position shifted when the city last month announced a tentative agreement with District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal labor union, that allowed for remote work options.

Jacques Jiha, the budget director, agreed on Monday that remote work was an issue and that the city was trying to figure out how to best address it.

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