A combination of factors is driving staffing shortages in municipal government – ​​Indianapolis Business Journal

The combination of a pandemic hiring freeze, an early retirement program and a national desire for higher salaries has left parts of the Indianapolis government struggling for staff.

Ken Clark

Over the past two years, the city has seen some of its highest vacancy rates in decades, Comptroller Ken Clark said. Exact data isn’t available, but Clark said the last time city workers recall seeing vacancy rates approaching 20% ​​was in the 1990s.

Although some progress has been made, the vacancy rate was still nearly 19% at the end of June, with 1,667 of 8,972 vacancies unfilled.

“We fought through ’21 and most of ’22 to fill vacancies,” Clark said.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, the city had frozen hiring in most departments except the Public Works and Public Safety departments.

The city has seen little attrition for most of this year, Clark said. Then officials launched an early retirement plan in October, which offered 190 employees over the age of 55 a buyout. All 190 accepted the offer, which cost the city $12 million.

“We were looking to consolidate the city [financially]and we had no idea we were going to get [more] federal money of any kind to help us,” he said.

Some city officials now regret the buyout program, he said, which was proposed in preparation for the post-pandemic budget shortages the city is expected to face this year.

“Would I like to have some of these employees now?” Yes, I know that,” Clark said. “I know there are department heads who would say the same thing. It was a blow from which it will take a long time to recover, just because these people had a lot of experience and they have been here for a long time and it is difficult to lose them.

Alexis Pflum walks with Birdie at Indianapolis Animal Care Services on South Harding Street. (IBJ Photo/Eric Learned)

Clark said it was still the right move for October 2020 because the administration could not predict the amount of federal funding it would ultimately receive or the currently tight labor market and the lure of better-paying jobs.

As the pandemic continued, many employees left government jobs. A decline in concerns about health and stability has led some workers to prioritize higher-paying private sector roles over high-paying, lower-paying urban jobs.

The rollout of a new pay scale and an updated compensation plan has helped recently, Clark said.

For example, the starting wage for employees of the Mayor’s Action Center call center has increased from $13 to $16 per hour. Veterinary technicians in animal care services have seen their salaries increase by double digits. Clark said these changes immediately led to a larger pool of applicants.

“We are seeing improvements in the pockets, attracting more applicants in certain areas,” he said. “Other areas that I get complaints about, that we don’t get any candidates.”

The city also added some benefits, including new paid vacations, floating vacations and parental leave, Clark said.

The city is also in the midst of a compensation study, expected to be completed this month, that will help determine where compensation is lacking.

Competition between counties

Ryan Mears

Some sectors of the municipal administration could not wait for the results of the study on salaries. In January, starting salaries for attorneys in the public defender’s and prosecutor’s offices were increased from $53,000 to $60,000.

“I did it off plan due to their desperate need to hire,” Clark said.

But Marion County District Attorney Ryan Mears and Chief Public Defender Bob Hill say the pay raise is still not enough to compete for skilled workers.

While private-sector attorney jobs will always pay more than county jobs, Mears said, neighboring counties pay entry-level public defenders and prosecutors salaries of $70,000. Qualified people who want to serve the public can move outside of Marion County and maintain a better quality of life, he said.

Bob Hill

Additionally, Mears said, prosecutors in Marion County are being criticized more than in other counties, due to the attention paid to crime in Indianapolis.

“You put a lot of time and energy and effort into your work, and people respond with criticism,” he said.

Six of Mears’ employees left under the early retirement offer in 2020.

At the Public Defenders Agency budget hearing, Hill said he saw quality employees leave due to low pay.

“One of our most trusted and valued investigative paralegals recently left our job, and as she walks through the door, tears are in her eyes. But she has a family to support,” Hill said. “She can go get a job at Butler University, earning $20,000 more than I could ever hope to pay her.”

Hill’s office currently employs 187 attorneys and 123 support staff. He has 11 vacant social worker positions.

Street repair, garbage collection

The Department of Public Works has about 100 vacancies. Spokesman Ben Easley said it caused delays in day-to-day operations such as garbage collection. Easley said residents have been patient with the department as it communicates these challenges to neighborhoods through apps like Nextdoor.

About 30 additional DPW jobs were created in July, representing some of the department’s current vacancies. New DPW positions are also created in the 2023 budget for the maintenance of trails and greenways.

Ben Easley

To increase the number of candidates, the department fills the gaps that exist between the skills of a potential candidate and the requirements of the position.

Many jobs in DPW’s operations division — the largest division, which handles tasks such as filling potholes and snow removal — require a commercial driver’s license. The proposed budget for 2023 includes an initiative to offer CDL training in-house or through a vendor. DPW also requires employees to have a high school diploma or GED certificate. Easley said the department has considered creating partnerships so the department can help applicants without a high school diploma receive a GED certificate on the job.

Easley said DPW is generally not fully staffed, but could feel the effects of long-term trends. The department also sets up connection and referral bonuses.

“We try to be as attractive as possible to hire people,” he said.

Jessica Fehr cleans a kennel. The city-run facility is always in need of senior animal care technicians, even though the salary for the position has recently increased. (IBJ Photo/Eric Learned)

Fight against pandemic turnover

At the start of the pandemic, the Department of Business and Neighborhood Services lost 28% of its building inspection staff, 56% of its zoning and licensing inspection staff, and 79% of its licensing staff. permit.

Department spokeswoman Brandi Pahl said some vacant areas aren’t improving. The ministry continues to struggle to hire building and zoning inspectors, with a total of 37 vacancies this summer. Last fall, there were 25 vacancies for these positions.

The department runs Indianapolis Animal Care Services, which Pahl says still needs senior animal care technicians, despite the salary increase. The kennel had eight vacancies this summer, up from four last fall.

Pahl said working in the kennel — which is often overcrowded with cats and dogs — can be stressful and exhausting.

“It wears out [employees] physically, emotionally,” she said. “So we’re dealing with that aspect of things with this post as well, but we’re working on ways to help staff deal with all of that.”

To help find employees, the department used job fairs, college visits and partnerships with local organizations that offer job training programs.

“We’re just trying to fight every company that has the same problem as us,” Pahl said.•

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