An ongoing shortage of municipal workers has one city official challenging whether New York City's self-proclaimed "get stuff done" mayor can live up to that mantra.
Nearly one year into Mayor Eric Adams’ first term, New York City is struggling with double-digit vacancy rates in “mission critical” areas, ranging from the creation of housing and revenue collection to administering programs for low-income children, according to a new report released Tuesday by Comptroller Brad Lander.
The report – which draws on recent city data on agency spending – criticizes the Adams administration for having “exacerbated the problem” through budget cuts tied to a looming fiscal crisis. (In the most recent measure, budget officials two weeks ago ordered city agency heads to cut their civilian vacancies by roughly half.)
“We’re at a new moment,” Lander told Gothamist. “The mayor just decided that the places in city government where vacancies exist, that's where the city is going to cut, even if some of those things are mission critical.”
In one of the most dramatic examples, the comptroller’s report found a nearly 47% vacancy rate in the city’s Department of Social Services’ Child Support Services division, which administers programs that impact one in seven New Yorkers under 18.
The Department of Social Services, as well as the Administration for Children’s Services, were among the agencies cited as having multiple units with more than 30% vacancy rates.
Reports and stories about the city’s unusually high attrition in the municipal workforce are not new. Staffing shortages have been blamed for the drop in affordable housing production, delays in investigations by the agency charged with police oversight and diminished capacity by sexual health clinics during the onset of the monkeypox crisis.
But Lander’s report zeroes in on 35 mayoral agencies that provide social safety net services, enforce administrative rules such as building codes and maintain the city’s technological infrastructure. As of October, the city had a citywide vacancy rate of just under 8%, nearly quadruple that of pre-pandemic levels, the report said.
“Just two weeks ago, a chunk of a big building in Brooklyn fell off,” Lander told Gothamist. “You can't tie that directly to the building inspector, but if you don't have building inspectors out there regularly over a period of time, your risk of serious danger grows.”
The city’s Department of Buildings has a vacancy rate of nearly 23%, according to the report.
Lander said he was also concerned about the risk of cyber attacks on the city. His office found a 36% vacancy rate within the unit that administers the city’s so-called “cyber command” center.
Reached for comment, Jonah Allon, spokesperson for the mayor, issued a statement saying the city is taking "aggressive steps to recruit and retain top talent across city agencies, and we have not experienced operational impacts to city services as a result of vacancies.”
He added, “We will continue to monitor vacancies and take a smart, fiscally-disciplined approach to ensuring that city agencies are well-staffed so we can deliver quality services to New Yorkers and continue to ‘get stuff done.’”
Speaking to reporters two weeks ago, Adams noted that Lander’s office has a high vacancy rate, which currently stands at around 14%.
“I just think he needs to focus on his office delivering services,” the mayor said, adding that the city’s fiscal situation meant he needed to find efficiencies within government.
In response, Chloe Chik, a spokesperson for the comptroller, pointed to a list of recommendations outlined by their office that would “help us hire and retain workers, including that the comptroller’s office is already a hybrid workplace.”
I'm all for fighting the rats, but you know who fight the rats are municipal employees. And we don't have enough of them in critical positions.
As the mayor has also pointed out, the pain over hiring and retention is not unique to New York City. Other local and state governments have also struggled to hire during the pandemic, which saw a hiring bump in the private sector.
But Adams’ refusal to allow workers the option of a hybrid schedule has been singled out as a common source of frustration among city workers who have either quit or said they were looking to leave.
Under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city’s workforce ballooned to more than 300,000 employees. The number fell to less than 282,000 in August, according to an analysis released last month by the state comptroller.
As part of his report, Lander proposed a list of recommendations that included allowing hybrid work for certain workers. The comptroller also called on the mayor to appoint a chief talent officer, a move that he said would signal the urgency of the staffing crisis and help cut through red tape that often bogs down the hiring process.
Despite the clampdown on hiring, City Hall last week promoted a new opening for a so-called rat czar.
“I'm all for fighting the rats, but you know who fight the rats are municipal employees. And we don't have enough of them in critical positions,” Lander said.