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One in Five Jobs Unfilled at Health and Buildings Departments, City Council Finds

Preliminary stats from Councilmember Gale Brewer ahead of a Friday hearing show deep holes in staffing at key city safety agencies.

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City Councilmember Gale Brewer, pictured here at a rally for workers last September, wants her committee to address municipal staff shortages.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had nearly 1,200 unfilled positions in June — making the agency on the pandemic’s frontline one of 46 in city government missing more than 10% of their budgeted employees, according to preliminary figures obtained by THE CITY.

The numbers reflect an ongoing challenge in hiring and retaining government workers, an issue that’s getting scrutiny at a hearing on Friday under City Councilmember Gale Brewer’s Oversight and Investigations Committee, which produced the preliminary numbers.

They show the citywide government jobs vacancy rate at 7.9% as of June. The agency with the most extreme shortfall was the Commission on Human Rights, which had 37 of its 136 budgeted positions unfilled — a rate of 27.2%.

Among larger agencies, vacancy rates were highest at the Department of Buildings, at 24.2% (489 vacancies), the Department of Health at 19.1% (1,189 vacancies) and the Department of Social Services at 17.3% (2,256 openings).

The numbers were slightly better at the city’s uniformed agencies.

The Department of Correction had a shortage of 862 workers in June, or 9.1%, although an extended trend of employees calling out sick has been compounding problems there. 

And while the NYPD had a comparatively low vacancy rate of 2.9% in June, that equates to 1,448 unfilled positions, the preliminary numbers show.

“I don’t know where all these vacancies are, but I can tell you from personal experience, everything is slow in terms of getting sign-off,” said Brewer. “I’m just worried the expertise we’ve had over the years is going to disappear from the city.” 

She pointed to the recent rehiring of former NYPD Chief and Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joe Esposito — to run enforcement for the Department of Buildings — as an example of retention of municipal expertise.

Brewer said the problem runs deeper than the overall number at particular agencies, because acute shortages are impacting specific units.

She said she’s heard of issues at the fire department, which had 360 open positions for a vacancy rate of 2% in June, regarding inspections of child care facilities and restaurants.

Officials at the fire department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

As THE CITY previously reported, staffing shortages within specific units of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development threatened to undermine the creation of affordable housing.

Overall, the agency was short of its budgeted headcount by 400 positions, or 15%, in June, the preliminary numbers show.

Staffing shortages have also contributed to slowdowns in housing the city’s homeless, according to NY1.

Search for Causes

The city’s Independent Budget Office last week reported a citywide government job vacancy rate of 7.9% — up from 1.6% in January 2020.

IBO spokesperson Elizabeth Brown said the office is currently investigating the shortages, but that a hiring freeze instituted by former Mayor Bill de Blasio from March 2020 to April 2021 during the peak of the COVID crisis was a contributing factor.

“What we’re looking into doing is trying to get a sense of whether departures are accelerating or it’s taking longer to hire people,” said Brown.

Additionally, Brown noted, the largest drop in municipal worker numbers came in October 2021 — just after de Blasio instituted a full-time return-to-office mandate for city workers and just before his COVID-19 vaccine mandate for municipal workers went into effect.

Mayor Eric Adams has repeatedly stressed the importance of public and private sector workers’ returning to in-person work, a priority that his chief of staff, Frank Carone, drove home in a memo sent to municipal workers in May.

“While hybrid schedules have become more common in the private sector, the Mayor firmly believes that the city needs its workers to report to work every day in person,” wrote Carone, according to PoliticoNY.

City Hall spokesperson Fabien Levy said he couldn’t immediately comment on the preliminary figures, but noted that the shortages haven’t impacted operations — and that the city continues to aggressively recruit additional employees.

“In the early months of his administration, Mayor Adams has built a diverse and highly-talented team that is laser-focused on delivering results and getting stuff done for New Yorkers,” he said. “And over these first eight months we have done just that despite a labor shortage that has affected almost every sector nationwide, including government.”

Brewer said she believes the city needs to change some aspect of its hiring practices or to be more flexible in accommodating hybrid work schedules — at least for the near future.

“I know it has to be solved,” she said.

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