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Government Worker Shortages Worsen Crisis Response

Burnout, retirements and uncompetitive salaries have exacerbated a growing scarcity of workers in critical job positions for managing infrastructure, transit and disaster preparedness.

Fort Myers Beach on Thursday, Sep 29, 2022, which was mostly destroyed after Hurricane Ian made landfall overnight. Short on workers, government response teams will be stretched in helping residents throughout Florida get back on their feet.
(Douglas R. Clifford/TNS)
The Pearl River didn’t swell quite as high as the officials anticipated after late August storms hit Jackson, Miss., but it was more than enough to overwhelm the city’s water treatment plant. That’s partly because, in the months leading up to the flood, the plant was short on Class A water operators — highly trained workers who are required to be onsite to run the plant — and those who were still on the job were working punishing overtime hours.

Earlier in August, the city’s deputy director of water operations sent a letter to the director of public works saying she was “just worn down” from doing both her day job and filling in long hours as a water operator on the weekends, as local news station WLBT reported. And days before the storms hit and the most recent crisis began, leaving the city without drinking water for weeks, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials gave an interview to the Mississippi Free Press saying the city had failed to recruit people for the critical operator positions.

Acknowledging that the plant was understaffed in an interview with Governing later in September, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the city faced steep challenges to hiring because of both the complexity of its water system and the long training period required for water operator positions.

“The bench is extremely short because we’re one of two cities in the entire state that has a surface water system and requires Class A operators,” Lumumba said. “It’s not one of those things where you can just borrow talent from cities around you — it literally is homegrown in many instances. And it takes six years, whether four years in college and two years after or six years from the moment you arrive in the city.”

In the weeks since the crisis began, a host of state and federal agencies have sent staff to Jackson to help resolve the acute water crisis and assess the city’s long-term water needs. It’s a stark example of how staff shortages and aging infrastructure in cities can reverberate throughout other levels of government. And it could become more common as public agencies struggle to hire and retain workers, infrastructure gets older and more brittle, and extreme weather becomes more common.

Widespread State and Local Shortages

States and cities all over the country have seen a loss of workers over the past several years, and many are struggling to hire new ones. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, state and local governments lost more than 600,000 workers between the start of the pandemic and June of this year. Those shortages have begun to affect basic services, including many that are critical to safety and quality of life. According to a Center for American Progress report from March, there were 10,000 fewer water and wastewater treatment plant operators in 2021 than there were in 2019.

Peggy Gallos, director of the Association of Environmental Authorities in New Jersey, which represents water, sewer and waste agencies, says the federal government helped support a huge influx of local workers after the passage of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act in the 1970s. Many people were hired to help build and staff water treatment facilities to comply with those laws in the ensuing years. And “those people are now aging out,” Gallos says.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has begun to provide funds for cities and states to address some of the backlog of deferred maintenance on public infrastructure, including water pipes and systems. And to some extent, fixing physical infrastructure should put less strain on the workforce, Gallos says. But local governments still need to hire and retain staff to build, operate and maintain infrastructure systems. And they have faced increasingly tough odds in doing so.

Slower Wage Growth and Uncertain Conditions

The obvious reason why governments have struggled to hire and retain workers over the past few years, says Brad Hershbein, senior economist and deputy director of research at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, is that they can’t improve pay rates as quickly as the private sector can in response to worker demands for better wages. Another reason is that lots of government work has become newly politicized during the pandemic — public workers can be “heroes one day and villains the next,” he says. And a third factor is that staff shortages tend to make work that much more difficult for people who remain, contributing to unattractive working conditions.

“The burnout gets worse,” Hershbein says. “You get a spiral, where fewer people are stuck trying to handle the same amount of work and the whole thing collapses. That’s a real risk at a lot of agencies.”

Those conditions tend to be more common in cities, like Jackson, that are poor or shrinking, Hershbein says. Workers may not want to take a job that they are otherwise qualified for if a city lacks certain amenities, or if there are few job opportunities for a spouse or family member. And long-running underfunding of infrastructure tends to make crises, and the worker burnout that accompanies them, more likely. But it’s not just poor cities that are facing challenges in hiring people.

Local Crises, National Responses 

As the Federal Reserve’s inflation-fighting efforts begin to affect the labor market, hiring could become easier on state and local governments: While they can’t raise wages as quickly as the private sector, they tend to offer more stable conditions when the economy is shrinking, Hershbein says. In the meantime, public agencies are looking for creative ways to attract workers.

In Baltimore, for example, the Department of Public Works is offering signing bonuses for some positions and recruiting for certain jobs directly from public high schools, according to Jason Mitchell, the department’s director. It’s also trying to move more quickly. At a recent public event, the department also made 10 job offers on the spot, he says.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority used to orient its entire hiring practice around the assumption of a surplus of applicants, says Steve Poftak, the MBTA’s general manager. That meant that the authority could take its time making job offers and still expect a qualified candidate to accept the position, he says. But that’s no longer the case. Now the agency often finds an applicant will have moved on if it waits too long to make the offer. And the authority’s struggles to hire workers aren’t necessarily a budget issue, Poftak says.

“We want to have more employees than we have, and we have the funding to do it,” he says. “It is an incredibly constrained labor market right now.”

Staff shortages contributed to a safety crisis at the MBTA that drew a federal response earlier this year. The Federal Transit Administration cited low staffing and long hours for dispatchers, who oversee the movement of vehicles throughout the transit system, as part of a probe into safety issues at MBTA. In response, the authority initiated a “hiring blitz” to recruit new dispatchers, which involved offering a $10,000 signing bonus to new hires and working to bring recent retirees back on the job, Poftak says.
Idle MBTA trains in Boston. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's struggles to hire qualified workers has led the Federal Transit Administration to cite the agency for safety problems with low staffing and long hours for dispatchers.
(Wangkun Jia/Shutterstock)
The authority now has a “full class” of trainees working to become new dispatchers, Poftak says. But there are limits to how many people a dispatcher can train at a time. And there’s no “precise timetable” for when the dispatching unit will be back at full capacity.

“The labor pool we draw from is heavy rail operators,” Poftak says. “You can’t just come in off the street and become a dispatcher … you have to have a knowledge of the geography of the system.”

‘A Domino Thing’

Not every local worker shortage draws a federal response. But those that do further strain the country’s already stressed federal emergency relief operations. Just this year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has responded to more than 300 new major disaster declarations. And that’s on top of the lingering disasters from years past, says Christopher Currie, director of homeland security and justice at the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The GAO has concluded in a series of reports on federal responses to disasters like Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, that understaffing at FEMA compromises relief efforts. Many workers decline deployments to disaster areas because of “burnout and austere conditions in the field,” according to one report. FEMA has a full-time staff, but also draws on a pool of part-time “reservist” workers to respond to disasters, Currie says. A lot of those workers were overtaxed during the pandemic, and the increasing frequency of natural disasters is making it harder to do all the work that needs to be done.

Most of the work of recovery from a disaster happens after the initial emergency phase, Currie says. But, especially during hurricane seasons, disasters happen so frequently that FEMA’s attention is pulled from place to place. Puerto Rico was still recovering slowly from Hurricane Maria when Fiona hit earlier in September, knocking out power across the island. Just over a week later, Hurricane Ian was bearing down on Florida’s Gulf Coast, promising untold chaos and danger. Meanwhile, FEMA is still dealing with aspects of some disasters as far back as Hurricane Katrina.

“When you get into recovery — when most people have forgotten about the disaster — that’s when most of the work occurs,” Currie says. “That’s where a lot of the turnover and shortage has an impact … It’s a domino thing. It compounds.”
Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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