Staff shortages slow, hinder work at some city agencies

Amid an ongoing hiring freeze, a report card on city agency performance released this week shows that some agencies still don’t have the staff they need.

Mayor Eric Adams’ most recent report card just dropped.

Mayor Eric Adams’ most recent report card just dropped. Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Four months into a municipal hiring freeze and several rounds deep of slashing vacant city jobs from the budget, it can be easy to forget that an array of New York City agencies are operating with a shortage of staff, and in some cases have been for several years

A report card on city agency performance released this week shows that some agencies still don’t have the staff they need, and it’s contributing to problems including fewer restaurant and pest inspections being completed and slower customer service. The health department has also cited staffing issues as it struggles to respond to a spike in new Tuberculosis cases.

The Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report, an annual report card on city agency performance, was released on Tuesday, covering the first four months of fiscal year 2024 – July through October of 2023. As these report cards have in previous years – including at the tail end of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term – this latest review shows staffing shortages are slowing or hindering the work of a number of agencies, including the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Buildings and the New York City Housing Authority.

In a few cases, however, agencies attributed positive performance trends to their ability to hire more staffers. The city’s hiring freeze, implemented by Mayor Eric Adams as a cost-savings initiative, was only in place during the last month of the timeframe that the report covers. Prior to the onset of the hiring freeze, Adams had been hosting “hiring halls” aimed at recruiting for the thousands of open municipal jobs across the city. 

In a statement sent after publishing, a spokesperson for Adams pointed to departments that were able to see some benefits from adding staff in that period. “Thanks to responsible, effective fiscal management, we were able to balance the budget and restore some critical funding without layoffs, tax hikes, or major disruptions to city services, and thanks to our targeted investments in staffing across city agencies, we were able to conduct record levels of housing inspections, significantly improve our sanitation services, plant and prune more trees, and make the city work better for everyday New Yorkers,” press secretary Liz Garcia said in a statement. “But with fiscal challenges ahead in (fiscal year 2025) and thousands of asylum seekers arriving in New York City every week, we are not out of the woods.”

Among the more concerning takeaways from the report is a 22% increase in new tuberculosis cases in the first four months of the year. In that period in 2023, the department reported 207 cases, compared to 170 cases in the same period in 2022. In all of 2023, the city reported 536 tuberculosis cases. (Unlike most other indicators in the report, tuberculosis cases are measured on the calendar year rather than the fiscal year.) The Department of Health attributed that increase to a variety of factors, including the influx of migrants from countries with higher rates of tuberculosis, and transmission in vulnerable populations, including people living in shelters. But attrition at the Department of Health isn’t helping. “Additionally, increased staffing gaps, high rates of attrition, and budgetary constraints have affected the Health Department’s capacity to conduct core TB control activities,” the report reads, before continuing, “The Health Department is working hard to identify new TB cases, ensure appropriate treatment, and conduct contact investigation to prevent the further spread of TB in NYC.”

The health department also conducted fewer health inspections and pest inspections in the first four months of fiscal year 2024 than in the same period the prior year. In that period, the health department only conducted inspections at 20% of all permitted restaurants, and conducted 23% fewer pest inspections than in the same period the prior year. Both declines were blamed on staffing shortages. Overall, both restaurant and pest inspections have been on an upward trend under this administration since hitting lows during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the report notes that inspecting just 20% of restaurants in the first four months of fiscal year 2024 represents a sharp decline from the nearly 47% inspected over the same period of 2019.

Staff shortages at the Department of Transportation were also blamed for a steep drop in the number of call center calls answered within 30 seconds – from 69% to just 1%. “DOT is interviewing candidates to backfill vacancies, as well as exploring technological advancements to improve efficiency at the call center,” the report said.

Even the team at the Department of Investigation responsible for conducting background investigations of candidates for city jobs suffered from a shortage of workers, leading to a slight increase in the average time it took to complete background investigations – from 101 days to 117 days, which the report notes is still well below a target of 180 days.

Though not attributed to a specific indicator, staffing was also noted as a persistent challenge at the New York City Housing Authority. “NYCHA continues to face several challenges such as the lack of capital funding to address the aging plumbing infrastructure, vacancies and turnover in critical positions, resolving scheduling issues, and difficulty in addressing mold and leak work order backlog,” the report said. 

There were a few bright spots on the city’s staffing capacity in the latest management report. The Department of Sanitation cleaned more highway miles – a relatively new metric – in the first four months of the fiscal year than in the same period last year. That increase was attributed to “the impact of full staffing” in the department’s highway unit.

And hiring of additional staff at the Department of Finance led to faster turnaround times for tax audits.

While the citywide hiring freeze has some exemptions, it’s still in effect for the time being. When unveiling his preliminary budget proposal earlier this year, Adams presented a rosier fiscal view of the future and suggested that he may call off another round of budget cuts set to happen in April. 

It’s not yet clear whether that might include lifting the hiring freeze, but when asked about that possibility, Adams said that he wants to return to recruiting for the city’s vacant positions but that the city still needs help in managing its budget challenges – in particular, the costs of sheltering asylum-seekers. “We were doing job fairs. We were trying to fill those 14,000 jobs,” Adams said at the time. “But we have to be honest with ourselves on the challenges that are in front of us, and we have to continue to be fiscally responsible to get through the state that we're in.”