Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photo: Getty
Mayor Eric Adams walked onto Cipriani Wall Street, packed with the city’s civic and business elite, to tout a very ambitious, barely sketched plan to reinvigorate the city’s commercial districts. “We’re going to show the country why we are New York, and this New York Conversation is going to show how together we’re running all cylinders on the same engine to get our economy back, get our city back, and we’re leaving no one behind. “, he said. This plan would include more lanes reserved for buses, charging stations for electric vehicles and the conversion of official buildings for residential use. In recent weeks, he announced an even more ambitious goal to build 500,000 dwellings over the next decade. It would be a landmark achievement for an administration that, after a year, has yet to find a policy defining the legacy to carry on, the equivalent of Bill de Blasio’s universal pre-kindergarten.
Yet a deepening crisis threatens these audacious plans: there are simply not enough staff in the public agencies tasked with running the city. The City Comptroller’s Office issued a report in December which revealed that the overall vacancy rate in municipal agencies is 8%, which is four times the rate of 2% before COVID. Some hub agencies struggle a lot more. The Buildings Department has nearly 23% of its vacancies. Town planning is at 22%. Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) and Finance are each at 18%. Cyber Command, responsible for protecting the city’s cybersecurity, is at 36%. Perhaps the most extreme case is that of the Child Support Services Division of the Department of Social Services, which is almost half empty. “There are empty offices and cubicles everywhere,” said a Buildings Ministry employee who wished not to be named. “Moral is very low. It does not help the remaining employees that the mayor announcement in November, it would eliminate up to 50% of certain vacancies.
Many cities across America are struggling with similar shortages. City workers are drawn to private sector salaries, especially those in specialized fields like law and engineering. Pandemic burnout has driven some young employees out of the workforce altogether. The allure of a healthy pension 20 or 30 years from now is simply not enough to entice them to come into the office five days a week. (Federal employees can still work remotely, as can employees of other governments, like in Connecticut.)
But what is happening in New York is made worse by Adams himself. His strong line against hybrid and remote work for city workers, a continuation of de Blasio’s policy, is chasing employees. Wages have been maintained intentionally low for new hires and those on mobility between agencies and the Town Hall; candidates were offered the lowest salary possible on the pay scale. A strict public sector vaccination mandate that allows few exemptions – also a remnant of de Blasio’s tenure – continues to weed out the 10 percent of adults citywide who are not fully vaccinated. Young city workers also say they are discouraged by the extent to which many agencies are run by patronage appointees, people who owe their jobs primarily to their connections to the mayor rather than their work experience. They include the former Buildings Department Commissioner Eric Ulrich (who resigned after being investigated for illegal gambling and alleged mob ties) and Department of Transportation Commissioner, Ydanis Rodriguezwho does not appear to have the level of agency management or transportation experience of former chiefs, according to some staff.
At HPD, which develops and maintains the city’s affordable housing stock, it seems likely the shortage will hamper the Adams administration’s attempts to expand the new accommodation that the city desperately needs. On a daily basis, a burnt-out workforce of case managers struggles to find available housing for low-income people. “We don’t have the people to deal with all the work we have,” said a former HPD employee, whose division oversaw Section 8 vouchers for 100,000 people. (Employee left low pay and no remote work option.) A current HPD employee, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that case managers simply could no longer follow. “On the file processing side, the line staff, people are really fucked up with stuff. There are too many cases to deal with,” they said. “There’s a mountain people have been digging themselves into for a year or two with no end in sight.” Compounding the situation is that the starting salary for case managers is around $38,000, not much more than the city’s $15 minimum salary paid over a year. If a case manager cannot help determine how much HPD will help with rent, then landlords can raise rent for tenants who should qualify for subsidies. “It is especially people with low incomes, immigrant families and people with children who are affected by this,” the employee said. The consequences could be much greater down the line; they also predicted that the HPD could lose federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for its poor performance.
At the city’s legal department, lawyers are rapidly leaving for the private sector, where salaries are much higher and remote work is tolerated. The workforce has decreased by at least 22%. A department attorney said the biggest problem is that there are barely enough attorneys to comply with discovery requests and depositions when cases come to court. Failure to comply can result in penalties from the courts and loss of revenue for the city. For this reason, more cases are settled rather than litigated in court. The affirmative litigation division has also sagged: the government cannot bring as many lawsuits against those who have damaged municipal property or breached contracts.
“We are losing experienced lawyers and not bringing in new ones because we are not able to compete right now,” the lawyer said. “I’ve had law school colleagues and other lawyers who have expressed interest, who have always loved government law and who might be interested in the work we do. When they hear what the situation is really like and see the salary and the lack of flexibility, they don’t come here.
Adams, in an effort to fill this gap, has announced scholarship bring private lawyers into municipal agencies, with salaries paid by outside firms. However, employees say the exchange is not going to stem the tide of departures or bring in enough attorneys for the department to operate at anything near its pre-pandemic capacity.
Even agencies that don’t rely on skilled workers are struggling. In the Department of Cultural Affairs, the program managers who process grant applications for cultural and artistic associations are disappearing. One of the remaining agents has a workload of 160-170 organizations, whereas the agent typically had just over half that number before Adams was mayor. This has resulted in months-long delays that employees only expect to get worse in 2023. “There’s no motivation here to be the best worker possible,” said a Cultural Affairs employee.
Eager employees who want to make their mark in city government — to be part of something big or memorable — see a stark difference between de Blasio, who has been ridiculed in the press but promised progressive governance at scale, and Adams, who showed far less interest in expanding child care or strengthening the city’s social safety net.
“It’s really hard to recruit really qualified people,” said a high-ranking agency employee. “People are ready to enter government if there is a vision and a goal that everyone is working towards. What are you working towards? You associate that with inflexibility with working from home, that’s a deal breaker. When the administration makes headlines for its big ideas — the ones Adams announced to Cipriani, for example — agency workers wonder how they will be executed with a diminished and demoralized staff.
Controller Brad Lander says Adams should embrace remote working to make the city more competitive. But he said the mayor can go even further to prioritize recruitment. He pointed to Michelle Wu, the mayor of Boston, who appointed a talent manager to attract city employees and fill vacancies. Adams has a Rat Czar, so why not a Recruitment Czar? “Some cities and some states have been aggressive in trying to address this issue, and New York hasn’t,” Lander said. “Maybe the opposite.”
However, spokespersons for Adams say there is no problem. “Mayor Adams has built a diverse and highly talented team that is focused on getting results and delivering on things for New Yorkers,” said Fabien Levy, spokesperson for Adams. “The city has not faced any operational impact on services with the vacancies that exist, but we are aggressively recruiting for each vacant position.”
While it is true that there are still over 200,000 municipal workers and there is no immediate danger of the type of mass exodus that would stop the government itself, the greatest risk is what will happen later. Lander, for example, wonders if the lack of personnel in Cyber Command will expose the city to a devastating hack. Or if a building could collapse, one day, it was never properly inspected.
And what about Adams’ ambitious agenda? The former HPD employee says management is still trying to rally the remaining workforce behind bigger goals. But the shortage of employees made it almost impossible to lobby for them.
“Nobody buys it anymore. Nobody cares. They don’t say what we want: a little more pay and remote work,” the employee said. “If the leadership doesn’t listen , What’s the point?”