Azley, Texas, a small town west of Fort Worth, lacks a garbage disposal department. “Residents may experience delays in garbage/recycling or yard waste collection,” the city said in a release. “You may also experience delays in responding to calls to customer service.”
That agency recently said that thousands of miles away, more than 100 employees of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency have contracted COVID-19 since late December. “Combined with the pre-existing staff shortage, this has led to an increase in missed munitions. We are also experiencing the impact of staffing in other job classifications including mechanic, car cleaner and transit supervisor. Up to 15% of K are missing.”
Across the country, the highly contagious Omicron variant has affected cities and towns that were already managing staff levels that were too lean. State and local governments shed more than a million jobs in the spring of 2020, and many more implemented freezes and other measures. In mid-2020, the level of local government employees was at a two-decade low. This is leading to service cuts, staff burnout and a grim feeling that there is no end in sight.
“We are struggling to fill open positions,” said Christine Brock, assistant city administrator and CFO for the city of Franklin, Tennessee.
Over the years, Franklin employees have averaged a 3.5% vacancy rate. Roughly since the start of the pandemic, it has been 10%, Brock said in an interview.
He said one area for which hiring is particularly difficult is people with commercial drivers’ licenses to pick up garbage. That said, so far, Franklin has managed to continue picking up garbage, but only by increasing the weekly schedule, sending some drivers to work overtime and collecting supervisors, she said.
According to an unofficial Google search, waste management could be one of the city’s services most affected, leading to delays Gainesville, Fla, baltimore and whole Middlesex County, NJ., among other places.
Also delayed: the school bus ride in Wake County, NC, where 15% bus routes are driverless, in accordance with local reporting, and public transportation in chicago, according to the transit agency of that city.
Pulaski County, in the Ark, Delays in the criminal court system It has become so complex that the courts there face caseloads three times their normal size. Similarly Jackson County Courthouse in Missouri suspended service “As a result of the unique and changing circumstances that exist at the moment.”
In Benicia, Calif., that city’s finance manager, Brett Prebula, told Businesshala that Omicron was exacerbating the current shortage.
US local-government employment at a 19-year low
“We had a problem with pre-COVID employees with compensation and the ability to get enough funding to attract talent,” Prebula said. “This has created a leanness in the operation that has been hard on the staff. You can’t maintain that for long.”
Prebula hopes the current crisis will provide an opportunity for city governments to rethink how they provide services. “We have to think about efficient technology adoption: how do we look at remote work, remote community service delivery,” he said. “Government often gets stuck with this manual, physical, local way of doing business, and we have to move on from it.”
Christine Brock sees similar fatigue in her employees. “We’re trying as hard as we can, but it’s not necessarily sustainable,” she said.
Brock admits that when the private sector is struggling to fill similar positions, but with typically more attractive compensation, it is especially difficult to hire people needed to perform tasks such as driving commercial vehicles.
“We are working to deliver the message of the mission of local government,” she said. “Maybe communication has to be modernized for the world we are in now. We still strongly believe in the value of public service. We just have to find new ways to recruit and retain employees who share that value.” “
Read further: ‘Representation at the table’: can state and local governments attract the next generation of black talent?