Adapt to fill the gap: NYC should embrace remote work, hire recruitment czar to fill 23,000 municipal vacancies, report says

The City Hall of New York
A view of the City Hall of New York
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As Mayor Eric Adams’ administration continues to struggle with filling a staggering 23,000 vacant positions across its municipal ranks, a think tank focussed on developing policy goals for the mayor rolled out a series of recommendations on Tuesday for recruiting and retaining enough employees to “rightsize” the city’s workforce.

The group, known as the 5Boro Institute, released the proposals in a report titled “Solving the Staffing Crisis: Saving City Government for New Yorkers.” It included ideas for both retaining current employees and filling vacancies like allowing city staffers to work from home part of the week, designating chief retention and recruitment officers, better tracking staffing shortages and recruiting for hard-to-fill positions. 

The 5Boro Institute was founded last year by City & State NY Publisher, Tom Allon, and former lieutenant governor, Richard Ravitch, with the aim filling what they see as a policy proposal gap in Adams’ administration, according to a published report.

Grace Rauh, the think tank’s executive director and a former journalist, said in a statement that Adams can’t achieve his key agenda items without first addressing the municipal staffing shortage.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, City Hall has ambitious goals that cannot be achieved unless we first solve the municipal staffing shortage.” Rauh said. “While longer-term structural changes are needed to further improve hiring, the recommendations put forth in our report can be deployed immediately to bring top talent into government and keep effective employees from leaving, ensuring New York City remains a beacon of hope and opportunity for decades to come.”

According to the report, the city’s ranks have been depleted by a net 20,000 workers over the past two years — with some agency vacancy rates either approaching or exceeding 20% — due to the lack of a hybrid work option, high burnout among city employees, higher pay in the private sector and long hiring periods.

Additionally, in anticipation of a coming economic downturn, Adams’ administration has taken steps to eliminate 4,300 vacant positions from the municipal workforce.

The reduced headcount among city workers has hindered certain agency’s ability to deliver essential services, the report found. For instance, it cited findings in last year’s Mayor’s Management Report that affordable housing production by the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development was down 45% in 2022 compared to the previous year.

“While the City must prepare for uncertain economic times, the service impacts we’ve seen as a result of staffing shortages demand immediate attention,” Ravitch said. “By following comprehensive retention and recruitment strategies, we can rightsize City government so that we balance the need to solve this staffing shortage with the need to exercise fiscal restraint.” 

When it comes to remote work, the report recommends the city offer public employees, who are able to, the ability to work from home one to two times per week.

“The City can utilize remote flexibility as a tool to boost morale, retention, and recruitment,” the report reads. “This practice could potentially even achieve cost savings for the City.”

It pointed to Adams’ recent tentative contract deal with District Council 37 (DC37) — one of the city’s largest municipal unions, which included a commitment from the city to launch a remote work pilot program this spring.

The report also recommended that Adams’ administration create new positions for chief retention and recruitment officers. Both positions would reside in City Hall.

The chief retention officer would, according to the report, oversee and coordinate the city’s efforts to retain more of its current workforce by implementing recommendations in the report, like more closely tracking staffing trends across city agencies.

“This Officer would support managers dealing with staff burnout and low morale, as well as identify any other specific issues that may be motivating employees to leave,” the report reads. “The Officer would also support Human Resources teams within City agencies to implement remedial actions for what can be complex cultural issues.”

The recruitment czar would work across the city’s vast hiring apparatus to identify the vacancies that most need to be filled and recruit for those positions.

“Chief Recruitment Officer should also develop a plan to prioritize hiring in-demand workers with high levels of digital literacy so we can modernize the workforce,” the report reads.

A spokesperson for the mayor said his administration is taking “aggressive steps” to address the city’s vacancy rate, while pointing to the creation of the “flexible work committee” included in the DC37 contract.

“Since day one, Mayor Adams has made it his administration’s priority to deliver city services efficiently, equitably, and effectively to all New Yorkers,they said.

“Despite ongoing nationwide hiring challenges affecting the public and private sectors, the city continues to take aggressive steps to recruit and retain top talent across city agencies,” they added. “As part of our tentative contract agreement with DC37 announced two weeks ago, a flexible work committee will be created to discuss options to provide greater flexibility to employees and to enhance morale, including remote work, compressed and flexible work schedules. We welcome productive ideas from all stakeholders, and thank the 5Boro Institute for their report.”