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Why New York’s City Workers Are Quitting in Droves

New York City, the largest municipal employer in the country, is facing an exodus of city workers that has led to a surge in job vacancies and difficulties delivering basic municipal services.

The wave of departures has included health care workers, parks employees, police officers and child protective service workers. Some are high-ranking officials with decades of experience; others are younger employees, some of whom bypassed higher-paying private sector jobs because they wanted to make a difference.

The city’s overall job vacancy rate was 7.7 percent as of March — five times higher than in recent years, according to the most recent data from the Citizens Budget Commission.

The labor shortage has affected a wide array of city agencies. Nearly 25 percent of jobs at the Buildings Department remain empty. Resignations and retirements from the Police Department are the highest they have been in nearly two decades.

A critical New York City inspection team, which responds to violations and complaints about lead paint, mold, heat and hot water, has been hampered by a severe staffing shortage, with 140 positions waiting to be filled.

A similar labor shortfall has caused the team’s agency, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, to tell some multifamily homeowners seeking tax exemptions that it will take up to a year to have a project manager assigned to their application because of “limited staff capacity and a significant backlog of projects.”

Interviews with nearly 20 current and former city workers suggest several key reasons behind the city worker shortage: a bureaucratic and lethargic hiring process that makes it hard to quickly fill vacancies; a job market that, in many cases, offers more lucrative and more flexible private-sector options; a pandemic-era hiring freeze that was largely lifted by November, according to the state comptroller’s office; and, according to the city, a rule that an agency can only hire one worker after two have left.

Many also cited Mayor Eric Adams’s campaign to compel city workers to return to the office full time, a stance that was reinforced in late 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,” Frank Carone, the mayor’s chief of staff, wrote in a memo to staff.

Some turnover in the city work force is to be expected when a new mayor enters City Hall, as Mr. Adams did in January. But much of that change is typically seen at the highest levels of government, and not as widespread as it has been this year.

At the end of March, the city had 446 fewer municipal employees than it had at the start of the month, according to previously unreported data acquired via a Freedom of Information request. In the previous month, the city had a net loss of 581 employees.

The 7.7 percent staffing vacancy rate — the percent of budgeted positions that remain vacant — vastly exceeds the 1.5 percent figure in March 2019 and in March 2020, as well as the 1.2 percent in March 2014, three months after Bill de Blasio became mayor.

The staffing crisis is part of a national trend: As more workers level up in the job market or set up their own businesses, and as others opt out for lack of child care, a phenomenon known as the Great Resignation has taken hold. But, to paraphrase Tolstoy, each workplace fosters unhappiness in its own way.

Erik Linsalata, 38, left his job as a parks department engineer because he no longer felt he had the resources to do work he was proud of. Casandra Kennedy, a 28-year-old public health adviser, quit because of the city’s full return-to-office edict, and her pay was too low.

Rob Poole, a former project manager at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, left for a private-sector job opportunity in the same field that offered significantly more pay. He said that many co-workers had quit before him, causing his workload to balloon.

The departures continued after Mr. Poole, 33, left his job: In February 2022, half a year after Mr. Poole had quit, his former city agency hired 13 employees but lost 45, a net loss of 32 workers.

The city’s staffing shortages may complicate Mr. Adams’s “get stuff done” mantra, potentially hampering his ability to implement key initiatives like aggressively building affordable housing or modernizing city services.

“We definitely think that there was a need to right-size the work force,” said Ana Champeny, vice president of research at the Citizens Budget Commission. “But attrition is a blunt tool and the city has lost staff in key areas, which is now negatively affecting service delivery.”

The Police Department has seen 1,400 retirements and 647 resignations this year — much higher than in 2019 before the pandemic, according to filings from the Police Pension Fund. Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, said in a statement that the department was in a “staffing crisis” and that the city was losing some of its “most talented and experienced police officers” at a time when major crimes were rising.

At the parks department, officials are having a hard time hiring entry-level staff, information technology workers and lifeguards, said one department employee, who expressed fear that engineers and architects might soon be hard to come by, as more jump to the private sector.

Of the 16 staff members listed as “senior” on the website of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice in December, 10 no longer work for the city. Public defenders and prosecutors have been leaving their jobs in droves.

And as developers race to get foundations into the ground before a major state tax incentive phases out, the construction industry is luring site safety managers, inspectors, architects and engineers from the buildings department with promises of bigger salaries, more work-from-home flexibility and better growth opportunities, according to a senior buildings department employee.

Fabien Levy, a spokesman for the mayor, said in a statement that the city’s labor shortage was part of a nationwide trend.

“The city has faced no operational impact to services with the vacancies that exist, but we are recruiting aggressively for every vacant position,” Mr. Levy said.

The city has roughly 300,000 workers, the largest municipal work force in the nation. Joining city government has always been a tricky calculation; the pay is often less than in the private sector, but there are good benefits, job security and a civic-minded ethos. But other factors have contributed to the expanded departures.

Mr. Adams has argued forcefully and repeatedly against the work-from-home tide, asserting that it is only by bringing workers back to cubicles that New York City can resurrect its central business districts, and he has chided New Yorkers who work from home.

“Returning to in-person work has been shown to improve employee productivity, allow for a greater cross-pollination of ideas, and boost mental health — and the city is leading by example, while encouraging private sector employers to bring their workers back to the office as well,” said Mr. Levy, the mayoral spokesman.

Some elected officials and union leaders, including Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate, have called on Mr. Adams to allow city workers more flexibility. On Friday, Mr. Williams again called on the city to offer a hybrid work option as coronavirus cases rise again.

“My office is working remotely currently, and when we return in person, it will be on a hybrid schedule,” Mr. Williams said.

A vaccine mandate for city workers, created last October by Mr. de Blasio, has also prompted some workers to leave. More than 1,660 city workers have been terminated for failing to comply with the mandate, city officials said, and others have left voluntarily.

Ms. Kennedy joined the health department in 2018 and helped with the city’s pandemic response. She grew frustrated with the lack of a remote work option and said it became harder to get by on city wages as the cost of living rose. She wanted to stay, but she left last October for the CDC Foundation, a health nonprofit.

“I loved the mission, especially when it comes to health equity,” she said of her work with the city. “It’s one of the leading public health departments in America.”

Daniel Irizarry, 33, a former staff attorney with the city’s Human Rights Commission, left in May for a better paying job after the number of lawyers at the commission dropped substantially. He was disappointed by the mayor’s comments about workers needing to be in offices to boost the economy, and worried about the possibility of getting long Covid.

“It was kind of a slap in the face to say we have to support the economy without regard to people’s health concerns,” he said.

Another city official who recently left said that Mr. Adams and top officials in his administration had created a work environment where independent thought was discouraged, and obedience to directives was valued. The official said a tipping point was reached when Mr. Carone, the mayor’s chief of staff, assigned staffers to read an 1899 essay called “A Message to Garcia” as part of a staff book club.

The essay features an underling who is instructed to dutifully deliver a letter “without asking any idiotic questions.”

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