City hall crunch
Limited job candidates, various emergencies and the housing crisis are just some of what’s creating staffing struggles at city hall
New Westminster City Hall
It’s been a tough two years for everyone, and New Westminster’s chief administrative officer Lisa Spitale says our city hall is not exempt.
In May, a report was presented to council outlining the struggles five departments were facing; each lead or acting lead wrote a memo discussing projects and policy work that would be delayed to at least 2023.
“Emergency response, or anything operational…those things are non-negotiable,” explains Spitale. “But then you ask yourself, ‘where can we make some changes so that we’re not affecting the majority of the core work,’ right? And it tends to be policy and project work.”
There are many examples where the city is struggling to find talent: In Dean Gibson’s memo about parks and recreation, horticulture and arboriculture services are seeing a major decline in interest. There are enough open hours to staff at least two full-time jobs.
“The historical large pool of interested candidates no longer exists, and in some cases, staff are resorting to recruiting former employees to come out of retirement and take on short-term assignments,” the memo reads.
Lisa Spitale addressing council on June 27, 2022/City of New Westminster
Gibson says because there are work priorities related to public safety – and combining that with busier areas – it shouldn’t be a surprise to see some park and public spaces not as manicured as they typically are. Other delays include “completion of lower priority preventative work and the changeover between seasonal plantings, and longer response times to non-urgent tree service requests.”
Over in the climate action, planning and development department, Emilie K. Adin says groups within this team are operating at anywhere from 20% to 71% capacity; the full department has about a third of the workforce it needs.
“Beyond the backlog of development and permit review, the city’s need to address ongoing crises, plus new crises (I.E. emergency and 24/7 shelters, sex worker safety, Ukranian crisis response, the Downtown Livability Strategy) is limiting the ability of staff to achieve items that had been set forth in the 2022 approved plan by council,” the memo notes.
The city is also responsible for hiring for the fire department. Acting Chief Erin Williams says many workforce issues stem from delayed recruitments, unexpected retirements, and not recruiting until job vacancies came up. Williams says it can take up to four months for open positions to be filled.
So why all the vacancies?
Spitale says there are interconnected factors that make it difficult to attract talent. “Years ago, when we would do recruitments, it would not be uncommon to hire people from back east,” she explains, adding that they’re now having little to no luck. Prospective employees are quick to say they can’t afford living in this region – a consequence of the affordable housing crisis.
Council discusses the importance of the staffing challenges report/City of New Westminster
“We were already talking about the impacts of the housing crisis before the pandemic, of what that was doing to our recruitments.” Spitale says the only option is to sometimes poach candidates from other city halls, adding it’s common for a worker to jump from one municipality to another – resulting in a recycled candidate pool.
Pre-pandemic challenges like Baby Boomers retiring only make matters worse. “We were already anticipating [that] shift. HR professionals have been saying this for a while, which is why we were looking at other staffing models and just the role of innovation, and being online,” says Spitale.
Like other industries, Spitale says the city has also had its share of people leave because of the so-called Great Resignation; perhaps they wanted a job with more flexibility to work from home, or because they’d taken time to reflect on how short life is, they decided to do something else.
Can the issue be fixed and/or prevented?
Spitale says that while the city tries to plan ahead, the pandemic proved to be a different kind of beast. “Some of this happened so quickly,” she says, “even last time this year I was always thinking, ‘why don’t we go back to full time?’ ” She adds things are so in flux right now that in some cases, she has to accept being okay with the idea of not always pre-planning – but rather, triaging and ensuring service is maintained at core levels. She adds the city is trying to fill as many positions as it can – and as quickly as possible.
“It’s also a bit of a false economy thinking that we can always contract out or hire out everything too, because you need staff to provide appropriate supervision,” she notes. “I miscalculate like I have the last two years, and I’m going to keep saying that I try my best to calculate these changes, but that’s been my fundamental learning through this whole thing. We have to just forgive each other when we don’t maybe calculate perfectly.”
So what does that mean for residents who might want to speak to someone at city hall about a bill or a parking permit? Spitale says the overwhelming majority of the community is gracious and understanding.
“I think for all of us, just as a recognition, they’re all people, and we’re trying to serve the community. We acknowledge they may be frustrated with timelines or delays. We’re trying our best, but I will say most people are really, really understanding,” says Spitale. “We’re all trying to make it work.”