Op-ed: We need our city workers more than ever

Photo by Tim Mossholder/Pexels

New Yorkers in the five boroughs rely on city workers. Some of these dedicated public servants educate children, clean and maintain roadways, protect lives and property, inspect buildings or connect and counsel those looking for work, to start a business or to get back on their feet. These services are essential, and provided by over 300,000 employees, serving the largest municipal workforce in the nation. 

In November, a report from my office found a steady and significant decline in the city’s staffing. A week later the mayor announced a plan to eliminate about 4,700 vacant positions. This has raised concerns about the city’s ability to continue to deliver high-quality services to New Yorkers at a time when they are critical to the city’s economic recovery. 

While city leaders are tasked with navigating these uncertain economic times and finding efficiencies, they must also ensure sufficient staffing levels at city departments to provide capable, reliable and responsive services that New Yorkers need.

Over the last two years, my report found the city’s full-time workforce declined by 19,113 employees, or more than 6%, the largest staffing decline since the Great Recession of 2008. What is important to note is that staff decline was not 6% across all city agencies and departments. In fact, the Department of Correction had the greatest loss of employees with a 23.6% decline, followed by the Department of Investigation (- 22.2%) and the Taxi & Limousine Commission (- 20.5%).

Other agencies also experienced a double-digit decline in staff, including the City Law Department (-18.3%), Department of Finance (-16.8%), Citywide Administrative Services (-15.6%), City Planning (-15.3%), Youth and Community Development (-14.8%) and Department of Probation (-13.8%). These departments provide some of the most critical and essential services to New Yorkers; therefore, addressing attrition and hiring must be a priority. 

My report also found vacancies rose alarmingly and unevenly across vital areas of the city’s workforce. The vacancy average of 7% was up from 1.7%, prior to the pandemic, and vacancy rates of more than 20% existed at divisions within the Departments of Social Services, Education, Parks and Recreation, Homeless Services, and Mental Health and Hygiene. This means services for child support, early childhood education, park facility maintenance, and help for the homeless and individuals facing mental health challenges could be disrupted unless more efficient means of providing them are found.  

In response to staffing decline, the city has shown significant efforts to hire to prevent impacts to critical services. In fiscal year 2022, the city hired at least 40,000 workers, more than in any year prior. My report noted that all social service agencies are trying to hire and that the Administration for Children’s Services and the Department of Homeless Services ranked among the highest in total job listings. In October, more than half of the city’s major agencies had external job postings for at least 20% of their openings. However, the city has more work to do on this front, as my office found some city agencies cannot hire fast enough to keep up with attrition.

Nearly 49,000 full-time city workers left their jobs in FY 2022, a turnover rate of more than 16% of the total workforce in a single year. Reductions in full-time staffing of more than 13% were found among the city’s fire inspection and prevention occupations, financial officers, architects, accountants and auditors, general office clerks, mechanics and repairers, school administration support staff, social workers, investigators and adjustors, managers, and sheriffs. Now, the city has the difficult task of filling increased vacancies, while ramping up hiring and finding efficiencies. If this historically high attrition is not brought under control, then understaffing will lead to longer wait times and less responsive service.

Any deterioration in city services now would not only stifle the city’s economic recovery, but in each case where a service is not available, lives may be affected. The city should be more transparent in their reporting of how they monitor and assess service performance and quality across their agencies. This is the only way to truly determine the impacts of staffing levels. 

The city’s ability to recruit and retain the city’s workforce is fundamental to providing quality services to New Yorkers. It is the balance of these two needs that we have highlighted as a critical issue facing the city’s administration. A possible recession could further threaten the city’s workforce. If staffing levels are not addressed now, they could create a more troubling picture for the city in the future.

Thomas P. DiNapoli is New York State Comptroller.