Cities, Towns Grapple with Labor Shortage: Public Works, Utilities Among the Hard-to-Fill

It seems inconsistent: pandemic-related, record-level job losses while employers report their own hardships in finding workers. But that’s the nature of what analysts have called one of the strangest labor shortages in memory. Nationally, employers have reported too-tight talent pools or general hard times retaining staff. While much of the labor-shortage news spotlight is usually either broad-talking or sector-specific, municipalities far and wide indeed have felt the effect.

Press releases from town halls about staff shortages interrupting government services haven’t been so uncommon during the pandemic; some announce temporary suspensions on activities like curbside pickup or public works.

Even CNN ran a national story, on January 14 as a snow system came through, on how staffing shortages meant slower efforts to clear wintry roads in North Carolina.

“Suspending a popular service is always one of the last options on the table.” said Alex Frick, public information officer with the City of Newton, which, like many cities and towns, have seen unusual times in filling some open positions. In January, the city announced a temporary pause on curbside recycling to allow an understaffed sanitation crew to provide other in-demand services.

Frick said public works and utilities are two hard-to-fill areas. “Newton employs around 200 people when fully staffed; currently there are 20 open positions citywide, and half of them are Public Works and Utilities positions,” he explained.

“Applications for open sanitation positions have been especially difficult to recruit,” he added, noting that was even after the town raised the advertised hourly pay rate.

Newton made do with roughly half the usual sanitation staff for months, Frick said, including temporarily reassigning staff from other divisions to make the immediate need work. They ultimately hit pause on the curbside recycling piece after COVID hit a number of staffers or their families.

“We never had a problem until COVID happened,” said Annette Privette Keller, communications director of the City of Kannapolis, commenting on areas in which her town has seen staffing shortages.

For Kannapolis, being in the Charlotte region added a challenge—several desirable employers in the populous area were able to offer attractive-pay positions with perks, like sign-on bonuses. Keller also noted the speed with which private employers, versus government, can often hire.

The jobs in question often are lower-wage and more physically strenuous. While private sector desirability is not necessarily a new challenge for government employers, the pandemic certainly added to it.

Over the course of the pandemic so far, workers have been quitting their jobs in record numbers to follow new opportunities, the New York Times noted in January in an article citing-new Labor Department numbers: 4.5 million-plus people left their jobs in November 2021 on their own volition, up from 4.2 million a month prior. It was a two-decade high.

Not all of them—far from it—sought new jobs.

“The pool of people applying at present for positions with (physical or outdoor labor and on-call work) in the job description simply isn’t large enough in our area to fill our need,” said Frick.

A 2021 report from the NC Department of Commerce specifically about the labor shortage confirmed far fewer job seekers than jobs available. “There were only 2.5 jobseekers per job opening in North Carolina during the worst of the COVID-19 recession in April 2020—far fewer than during the Great Recession, and even fewer than during the economic boomtimes preceding that recession,” the report said. “As of May 2021, there was only 1.0 jobseeker per job opening in our state—even fewer than prior to the pandemic. Similar trends are occurring nationwide. This arguably represents the most difficult hiring environment for employers in a generation or more, and consequently, this is the most promising labor market for jobseekers within recent memory.”

Just as Newton boosted the advertised rate of pay for certain positions, city governments are amending wages or recruitment practices to better entice the labor puddle. Kannapolis had a bit of a head start on the pandemic, having initiated a salary study in 2019 to better know competitive rates. The city also eventually raised its 401K match for employees, bumped up contributions to health savings accounts, and added paid holidays to the calendar, including employee birthdays.

Keller, the communications director, said the city also launched a career advancement program for police, fire, and water system employees. Further, they’ve added a health clinic that’s free for employees. They can get blood drawn for labs, flu shots, and so on. A physician assistant staffed there can also arrange for prescription refills.

Hendersonville is another that’s really stepped up its recruitment and retention game. It set out an initiative after feeling the pandemic labor pinch.

“We were seeing some challenges in recruiting for certain positions, especially in the areas of law enforcement and our sanitation jobs,” said Allison Justus, communications manager for the City of Hendersonville.

Justus said Hendersonville is flexing its ideal locale and plentiful natural resources among other positives in the city’s marketing, “to bring brand awareness to the city,” she said. A marketing firm helped them spread a “live-here-work-here theme” that portrayed local employees at work as well as enjoying their own lives as residents, underlining work-life balance as a value. “We’ve produced a few videos and have done a few paid ads on specific jobs,” Justus said.

“There’s been great city council support for this initiative,” she added.

Just as private employers offer alluring hiring bonuses, Hendersonville does now, too. And if an employee refers someone to a job ad and that applicant gets the job, that employee is eligible for a bonus as well.

Additional perks and adjustments were being discussed as of this writing, in January, when the city announced it had created a new position focused on recruitment and retention. Results are unfolding.

“I think we’re definitely seeing a lot more traffic to our job postings,” Justus said. “It hasn’t been a magic bullet, but we have been seeing improvements.”

In Newton, Frick, over email, said the community has shown great appreciation for the daily work of city staff over the challenging course of the pandemic and prominently since the curbside recycling suspension was announced. It came with “many calling in or commenting on social media that they are thankful for the men and women who keep the streets paved, make sure the roads don’t flood when it rains, work around the clock to deliver fresh water to their homes, and (almost always) pick up their garbage and recycling every week.”