BERKELEY — Managers in city offices across Berkeley have spent the better part of the year trying to recruit staff and patch holes in work schedules as vacancies careened upward, leaving some departments operating with too few employees to provide the services residents need and expect.
The staffing woes are affecting services throughout the city — from police and fire departments, and public works, to health services and libraries. More troubles loom with upcoming retirements that could further impact the employee counts.
Nearly 30% of the budgeted positions at the Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch library have been vacant this year, creating stressful conditions for workers and problems for users, said librarian Andrea Mullarkey, who curates the Berkeley Public Library’s teen collection.
“It’s been brutal for quite some time now,” Mullarkey said. “There aren’t enough people to do the basic job of keeping the doors open.”
Grumblings about staff vacancies have extended well beyond the city’s libraries — culminating in poor emergency-response times, spotty access to homeless shelters and delayed safety improvements to Berkeley’s streets, city workers said.
They point to record job departures — what’s become known as the Great Resignation — in the United States’ labor market and ongoing questions about safety nearly three years after the COVID-19 pandemic uprooted the workplace.
Several departments have been operating at two-thirds of their capacity, requiring mandatory overtime that further strains workers, City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley told the City Council on Tuesday evening. The city currently employs about 1,500 people.
Applications for city employment have dropped nearly 40% compared to pre-pandemic figures, and significant potential departures are looming, as up to 28% of the current workforce will be eligible for retirement within the next three years, Williams-Ridley reported.
“This is just a highlight of what we believe is a hiring crisis,” Williams-Ridley said. “The past two years have altered the very notion of what we call work.”
While the city’s trends align with neighboring Oakland and Richmond and have fared better than others across the Bay Area, she said Berkeley residents will continue to feel the brunt of the toll if hiring efforts for city positions do not improve.
Recent hiring efforts across the library system have drummed up around 120 workers, but long-term vacancies continue to exacerbate a lack of professional support and resources, said Mullarkey, who has been speaking out on behalf of colleagues represented by the labor union SEIU 1021.
Some new hires have left after only a few months on the job as the city has resisted more flexible hybrid and remote work options, she said.
“It’s a terrible cycle, because it means that the folks who are here are really beaten down,” Mullarkey said.
Shortages at child-care centers and nursing homes have also pushed more people out of the workplace, as they’ve stayed home to take care of family members, especially at a time when a stark number of people are still getting sick from COVID, respiratory viruses and the flu.
The Health, Housing, and Community Services department is struggling to care for some of the city’s most vulnerable members with a 25% staff vacancy rate. Among those with mental health professional classifications, the vacancy rate is an “astounding” 39%, according to city data.
Staffing woes have slowed response times for client intakes and assessments and reduced service hours at health clinics and in-person meals at senior centers, Williams-Ridley said.
The Dorothy Day House, a shelter and resource center for unhoused residents, was recently forced to close for several days because of staff sickness and shortages — at a time when temperatures dipped to record lows across the Bay Area.
Berkeley’s police and fire departments are among the hardest hit. Each is contending with a 25% reduction in its budgeted workforce, Williams-Ridley said.
Berkeley Police Department has 30 sworn positions open, as well as 15 jobs for public-safety dispatchers. Response times are getting longer for quality-of-life calls, such as welfare checks and disturbances, as well as follow-ups to catalytic converter thefts and auto burglaries, the city manager said.
The vacancies combined with anticipated retirement losses and mandatory overtime have pushed many dispatchers to start looking for positions with other agencies that offer a better work-life balance, Williams-Ridley said.
Meanwhile, local fire stations have been forced to temporarily close when there are not enough firefighters to staff all necessary shifts. Forced overtime for firefighters has reached “unprecedented” levels, according to the city report, and were 275% higher in fiscal year 2021 compared with 2020.
A 15% vacancy rate within public works has resulted in installation delays of flashing beacons — safety enhancements typically added at pedestrian and bicycle crossings — for more than 18 months and several missed cleanups related to illegal dumping, encampments and RVs.
Williams-Ridley listed several ways the city has tried to turn things around, including hiring more people in human resources to boost hiring efforts, broadening certification testing and approving salary increases or other bonuses for new and established employees.
She said the staff will have a report ready for the City Council in January that will have proposals to help recruit and retain workers in the “post-COVID” era, which could include benefits such as flexible work schedules, child care options and transportation perks.
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