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Staffing Shortages Take a Toll on Portland City Services

Pre-pandemic, job vacancies in the Maine city hovered around 125; now, twice as many are empty. City leaders have said that addressing the issue is a top priority but replacing lost jobs won’t be easy.

(TNS) — At the public works department, staff can't keep up with the backlog of signs that need to be replaced, streetlights that need to be fixed and vehicles overdue for maintenance.

At the police department, officers are forced to work overtime and have had to cut back on outside security details.

And at the Barron Center, nurses and staff are exhausted scrambling to keep up with residents as a temp agency fills gaps in the schedule.

Municipal staffing shortages across Portland, Maine, are taking a toll on almost every city service.

Before the pandemic, city job vacancies averaged around 125. Now more than twice as many jobs are empty: 253 out of 1,481.

"This is a big issue," Interim City Manager Danielle West said. "It impacts the city significantly — for morale reasons, recruitment and retention reasons and budget reasons."

And it's not just a problem in Portland.

A recent review of the job posting board of the Maine Municipal Association found more than 300 positions open in city and town governments across Maine, according to spokesperson Kate Dufour.

"With respect to why, municipalities are employers and face the same workforce recruitment and retention challenges facing private sector employees," Dufour said.

But Portland also runs its own nursing home and homeless shelters — something most other cities don't do.

"We're the biggest city in the state," West said. "We have a lot of things on our plate other municipalities don't have to deal with. I think everybody has staffing concerns, but maybe not to the level we have right now."

A Lot of Overtime

The Portland Police Department has 29 unfilled positions, including its chief, out of a staff of 187. "It makes it a challenge filling shifts," Interim Chief F. Heath Gorham said. "We have a lot of overtime."

The department must meet mandatory staffing minimums, which means officers with less than three years of service can't say no to overtime, though they also can't work more than 16 hours in a 24-hour period.

David Argitis, a more senior officer, isn't subject to forced overtime, but he sees the impact it has on his fellow officers.

"I think it's fair to say most of us love our job and the people we work with, but morale is low," Argitis said during a recent Friday afternoon shift. "It's a constant struggle, especially for the newer officers with forced overtime, stresses on family life and the struggle to make ends meet."

Last spring, during a wave of violent crime, the department also started turning down requests for outside details so they could put more resources into patrols.

Argitis, who worked in community policing before switching to patrol last year, said his old job remains unfilled as the department has had to narrow its priorities.

"Many people would feel community policing is essential, but our core responsibility is to respond to calls," Argitis said as he drove through his patrol area in the West End, making a point of going past Reiche Elementary School, where a suspicious man had recently tried to lure a student away.

He stopped to chat with a crossing guard and kept tabs on the various calls from dispatch, most concerning other areas of the city — a possible overdose, a found wallet, a man slumped over outside a grocery store.

The staffing shortage means that less serious crimes, such as traffic offenses, may get less attention, Argitis said: "That should be a concern for people in the city."

And the strains could grow worse.

With more than four months to go in the fiscal year, the police department already has spent $986,000 of the $1 million it budgeted for overtime.

It's a similar story across the city, which overall has spent about 90 percent of its $5 million general fund overtime budget. Vacancies are a big reason why, though the city also is struggling with an increase in violent crime and a growing population in need of shelter.

"People look at the budget piece and say, 'Oh, you must have a ton of cost savings. How are you using that money?'" West said. "But we don't, and the reason why we don't is because — in order to address those needs and do that everyday work — we have to use a lot of overtime."

In a push to fill its ranks, the police department is offering a $10,000 sign-on bonus, paid incrementally as officers hit certain milestones — graduating from the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, completing field training, making it through a two-year probationary period.

Emergency communications, with 16 vacancies out of 36 jobs — also offers a sign-on bonus.

"We're constantly looking at recruitment and retention and what we can provide, both to current employees, who we want to keep, and people looking to get into the career field," Gorham said.

Barron Center Hardest Hit

The Barron Center has the most vacancies of any department or division, with 74 openings out of 249 positions — more than half for certified nursing assistants. That means significantly scaling back operations.

Only three of the building's five wings are open, serving just 90 residents, though the center had budgeted for 165 this year and is licensed for over 200.

To bring the population up even part way, to 125, administrator Mary Beth Daigneault said, the center would need to hire at least 18 more people. "That's a huge amount," she said.

The number of people waiting to get into the Barron Center wasn't available Friday, but Daigneault said they receive multiple referrals daily from local hospitals and recently accepted someone who had been waiting for months.

Last spring, the Department of Health and Human Services conducted "stay interviews" to look for ways to boost retention. DHHS Director Kristen Dow said there was an overwhelming theme: "Staff are tired."

"It's exhausting," Dow said. "They're caring for people. They're wearing N95s and full PPE. We lost residents because of the pandemic. It's been a really hard time for them."

That's why the administration decided to bring in an outside agency to fill in for staff on vacation or when someone calls out sick.

"They need time with their families and outside of work. So that's been key for us," Dow said.

The nursing home jobs are physically strenuous, requiring heavy lifting and muscles to help residents move around.

"Everybody is sore — from the brand-new CNAs to the more seasoned ones," said Donna Latham, a certified nursing assistant who has worked at the center for 24 years. "Everyone is hurting from the pushing and pulling. That's because of the staff shortages. If we weren't working so hard, our bodies wouldn't be breaking down."

The center is meeting minimum staffing requirements, but Latham said the job would be easier with a better patient-to-staff ratio. Right now, she said, it's hard to meet the needs of the eight to 10 residents she's responsible for caring for each shift.

Latham, who makes about $22 an hour, said increasing pay could help.

The city pays CNAs from $15.27 to $20.84, plus differentials of $2 to $5 per hour depending on the shift. But there's talk of raising those rates in the next city budget. As of May 2022, the Maine Health Care Association estimated that the average pay for CNAs working in long-term care in Maine was $18.34 per hour.

"Working to stay competitive and nimble is hard to do in a municipal setting, honestly, when you're competing with large health care organizations," Dow said. "It's a challenge ... but that will be part of our budget conversation, to make sure we're competitive."

'What Are We Sacrificing?'

The public works operation center on Canco Road was quiet on a recent day. By early afternoon, staff had already finished preparing for the possibility of light snow overnight and some were out working on street projects.

Kevin Thomas, the department's traffic operations coordinator, was one of the few employees around. One-third of his nine positions are open.

"Given all the nuances of the job — the flashing lights, the painting, bike lanes, all that other stuff we're responsible for these days, it's certainly added to the to-do list," Thomas said.

On Friday, there were dozens of open complaints in the city's SeeClickFix portal, where residents can report non-emergency concerns like streetlights and potholes. They included a street light dangling from a wire on Congress Street, snow piled up on a sidewalk in the West End and a needed sidewalk repair in front of a restaurant.

"At the end of the day, what are we sacrificing if this stuff doesn't get done?" Thomas said. "Public safety. We aren't police or fire. But if the traffic lights aren't working, that's going to cause a problem. If streets are unsafely painted, if we don't have street signs in places, that will be a problem."

Mike Murray is juggling two jobs as deputy director and acting director of Public Works. He said it hasn't been too difficult for him to manage personally, but the department is short 27 employees out of 177, a number that has been pretty constant since he assumed the role of acting director in 2021.

To keep up, the department prioritizes tasks like winter road maintenance, plowing and street signal repairs, but can be slower to get to such things as replacing missing street signs, fixing broken streetlights and painting certain lines, like designated bike lanes and stripes on speed bumps, on the road.

Leadership Aware of Issues

City leaders say addressing staffing shortages is a top priority. The effects are obvious, even if the reasons it's hard to hire vary.

At the Barron Center, Dow and Daigneault said COVID-19 has had a big impact on long-term care, with the stress of the pandemic compounding pre-existing challenges like low pay across the industry.

At the police department, Gorham said a downturn in public support for policing in recent years has resulted in fewer applicants. Argitis, the patrol officer, said some neighboring towns and cities, also in need of more officers, are offering higher pay.

Public service jobs can be difficult, requiring physical labor, night and weekend hours, or both. And there's the challenge of working in the public eye.

"The public pushback, it can be tough," West said. "I've heard it mentioned in exit interviews. It's something other industries don't have but we do have to face that — and because people take their work very personally, it hurts. After a while, they're like, 'Maybe I can't handle any more of this.'"

To keep the staff it has, the city has adopted a flexible work policy allowing many people to work remotely or configure their schedules in a way that works best for them depending on the needs of their departments, and the City Council in November voted to use $2.4 million in COVID-19 relief funds for retention bonuses.

Thomas, the traffic operations director, said he's been able to build a good career working for the city, but he also recognizes that people may be more easily drawn to jobs in the private sector that can offer higher pay and better schedules. And in the era of remote work, fewer people probably want to do manual labor, Thomas said.

West, who has been serving as interim city manager since November 2021, knows the challenge firsthand. Her job is among a handful of open top leadership positions, including the heads of public works and housing and economic development.

"It's difficult because you have people coming in (to interview) and they're like, 'Are you going to be here?'" West said. Potential job candidates wonder if she'll be their boss, a question West can't quite answer.

The city had to put off hiring a city manager for months while the Charter Commission proposed a major change in the role and residents were given the chance to vote on it. This month, the city finally started reviewing dozens of applicants.

West declined to say if she has applied for the permanent job, but said she's hopeful that having more stable leadership will help address staffing shortages. In the meantime, she said she and department heads are doing what they can to find new staff and keep staff they have.

But that, of course, takes time — and a lot of labor.

(c)2023 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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