Lowell releases report showing 8% vacancy rate in city government
Like many businesses in the Commonwealth, Massachusetts’ fifth-largest city is facing a staff shortage.
Lowell has 82 vacancies in city government – just over 8% of the workforce – ranging from roles in parks, health, police, fire and other non-academic positions. Officials said these vacancies are the result of several factors, including retirements and wages that are not competitive with other job opportunities in the area.
City councilors Erik Gitschier and Corey Robinson in January called for a report on Lowell’s 1,020 government jobs. CFO Conor Baldwin then prepared the document. In a memo attached to the report, Baldwin told City Manager Eileen Donoghue and councilors that the number of vacancies at any given time depends on many factors.
“In large departments, like police and fire, rolling retirements or other personnel issues, such as injuries, are a common annual occurrence,” he wrote. Baldwin also told GBH that internal transfers and promotions often happen with employees.
The fire department has 11 openings and 131 firefighters currently on duty, while the police department is looking to add 14 more officers to the 177 currently on duty.
The transplant is also hard hit, with three vacancies out of five total jobs, which are essential for tracking and collecting meeting minutes, birth certificates, business licenses and other important documents.
Baldwin said no issues arose from vacancies and the city was still managing to provide services to residents.
Each year’s city budget represents 100% of jobs for each department, Baldwin said. When people leave these jobs, this money accumulates and can be used to stretch the city’s budget to meet other needs.
“This is especially true and in lean years. We are just coming out of the pandemic. And it’s important to point out, I think it wasn’t that long ago that we were very seriously considering the possibility of having to consider layoffs,” Baldwin said.
Restaurants, hotels and other venues that pay the city have closed during the pandemic, leading to lower revenues. Even so, he said, the city managed to avoid layoffs.
“You must be alarmed when you see that type of number — 82 currently vacant — in any city government because those positions are there to serve the public,” Councilor Gitschier said in a phone interview.
Gitschier, who worked in city government for 33 years, said other factors played a role, including low salaries and human resources not releasing job descriptions promptly.
“I think it comes down to lower wages for employees. I think it comes down to the COVID issue,” Gitschier said.
He added that he wanted to see a salary study conducted to assess the current remuneration of employees.
“We are in a competitive market looking for the same workforce. It is therefore necessary to have competitive salaries in the same offers. And at the moment we don’t have that,” he said.
Baldwin acknowledged that the city must compete with the private sector and other municipalities to recruit employees. The problem is apparent in the public works department, he said.
“The specific example that comes to mind is HVAC technicians, who can earn a much better salary in the private sector than they can in the public sector these days,” he said. . “We are struggling to compete on wages with the private sector now.”
He recognizes that if the city conducts a study, and if that study tells the city that it needs to raise salaries to be competitive, that decision will have an impact on the budget. Baldwin said the extra money would likely come from taxes.
Given Lowell’s designation as a Gateway City – which is a mid-sized urban center facing social and economic challenges – this is cause for concern. Baldwin said residents may not be able to afford a tax hike.
Ultimately, he wants to put a stopper for people looking for municipal jobs in a single city.
“I’m a city cheerleader and I think we have something to offer. It’s just hard to quantify that, and hard to put it into a job description,” he said. “But there’s a quality about Lowell that makes us different.”