Building a Workforce to Provide Quality City Services for Everyone
Building a City that works for everyone means having the City workers that are able to make our vision a reality.
But St. Louis, like many employers and municipalities across the country, has struggled to fill open jobs and retain employees.
We’ve seen the implications. Because of vacancies in our refuse department and emergency dispatch center, critical City services — and the residents who rely upon them — have suffered.
This is an urgent issue, and it needs to be addressed with urgency.
Right now, we have the tools to do so. In fact, we have a historic opportunity with significant revenue from the Rams settlement and ARPA — and the hiring of a new Personnel Director.
St. Louis has an archaic hiring and personnel system. That archaic system is headed up by the Personnel Director, who does not answer to anyone (including the Mayor) and cannot be fired except for malfeasance. That structure was intended to insulate the position from political pressure, but in practical effect it has meant that there are no consequences for inaction, delay, or City employee dissatisfaction.
The result is that our new Personnel Director, Sonya Jenkins-Gray, is only the fifth Director in the history of the City.
I have been critical of the former Personnel Director for not acting quickly enough to address our hiring and retention problems. I am looking forward to working with Ms. Jenkins-Gray to help her implement programs and policies that will help us recruit, train, and retain the City employees that we need to make St. Louis a City that works for everyone.
Here is my open letter to her:
Dear Director Jenkins-Gray,
As you are well aware, the City of St. Louis has struggled with recruiting and retaining employees. Both are symptoms of St. Louis City government not being a competitive employer in today’s environment. I believe you and I share the desire to make St. Louis an employer of choice in the region. To do so, we need to answer the needs of today’s employees and show the benefits of working for the City.
In the coming months I know you will be assessing our challenges and opportunities. Know that I will be a partner in finding ways to improve. From my years of experience working with and among City employees, and from my work advocating on behalf of workers and marginalized people, I have some suggestions.
Some are obvious. Others are more innovative ways cities are showing themselves to be competitive employers.
First, and most obviously, we need to pay our employees competitively.
This is not a new issue. I’ve been critical of the hesitancy to raise salaries in years’ past, and I’m glad that this year’s budget made some good progress. This year’s budget includes a 3% raise for City workers (plus a 1.5% step increase each year), paid family and medical leave, and $2,000 retention bonuses.
That budget went into effect this summer, so it may be too soon to see the impact it has had on morale, retention, or recruitment. But a study that was commissioned by the City shows that a 3% raise is only part of what we need to be competitive with other similarly-sized cities. In fact, that report recommended more than 7% salary raises. Accordingly, I think we can, and should, do more than 3%.
Part of the reason raises have not been implemented in the past has been lack of funding — an issue that is now less urgent with the Rams settlement and a rebound in revenue. Should Amendment 3 (decriminalizing marijuana) pass, we could also see an increase in yearly marijuana tax revenue — conservatively — of $1 million. That doesn’t include the increases in regular sales tax revenues, or the increase in earnings tax revenue, both of which are expected to increase if Amendment 3 passes.
Raises and retention bonuses are an important first step, but we know we need to do more.
Provide education and training: The City’s SLATE (St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment) recently offered free four-week commercial drivers’ license (CDL) training and testing. Graduates of the program are eligible for the various truck driver positions with the City, including refuse drivers. That’s a great example of a program that provides an excellent education to St. Louisans, while also benefiting the City. Developing other, similar programs (whether with SLATE or with area nonprofits) is a win-win. What more can we do to create and promote these kinds of programs?
Creating educational opportunities with fellowships and mentorships could benefit both the City and workers. What partnerships can we create with area schools to train students and promote working with the City?
Provide additional valuable benefits: I also support the establishment of Health Savings Accounts (personal, pre-tax, savings accounts that can be used to pay certain healthcare expenses, like deductibles, copayments, and more) and Dependent Care Flexible Spending Accounts, which allow employees to set aside pre-tax dollars for eligible adult or child care expenses like preschool, summer camp, and child or adult daycare. HSAs and DCFSAs are offered by many employers. To be competitive, we should offer them as well.
Similarly, telework and flexible work options are now commonplace in private industries and could be offered for those positions that do not require in-person work.
Provide financial incentives: I support using financial bonuses for employee retention and as incentives for hard-to-fill positions, such as the $3,000 incentive for refuse truck drivers. But some government entities have developed other financial incentives.
For example, federal workers at or below a certain financial threshold can apply for a Child Care Subsidy. Baltimore’s City Employee Homeownership Program provides downpayment assistance for employees who have worked with the City for six months or longer.
And working for the City entitles employees to student loan forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program through the federal government. https://studentaid.gov/manage-loans/forgiveness-cancellation/public-service. Not all student loans are eligible for that repayment (notably, private loans are ineligible); providing some form of student loan forgiveness to employees who are not eligible for the PSLF program would be a valuable incentive.
Improve recruitment efforts, especially in underserved and marginalized communities: In its hiring efforts, the City should prioritize recruiting members of our community that have been historically marginalized, including formerly incarcerated individuals.
While I supported and voted for the “Ban the Box” legislation that prohibits employers from discriminating against an applicant with a criminal history, we can do more to actively recruit formerly incarcerated people.
Due to discrimination in law enforcement and the justice system, people of color — especially Black men — are disproportionately incarcerated. Research shows that one out of every three Black boys born today will go to prison in his lifetime. The unemployment rate for people with a criminal history is significantly higher, with one report estimating it at 27%, compared to 5% for those without a criminal history. Therefore, partnering with workforce development agencies and reentry job training programs that can refer qualified and trained applicants not only fills an employment need for the City — it actively combats systemic racism and discrimination.
How can we better engage with members of our growing immigrant and refugee populations, formerly trafficked individuals, and members of the disability community?
Lastly, North City has greater rates of unemployment; how can we better promote the job openings, benefits, and incentives to people in those neighborhoods?
I look forward to working with you on these and other issues that impact our City workforce so we may provide quality City services for everyone.