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Ariz. city starts massive effort to hire staff for public safety positions

The city manager plans to implement three back-to-back fire academies that will each bring in 30 recruits


The Tucson Fire Department has had nearly 300 applicants despite the need for only about 50 more recruits, but the Police Department received 63 applicants — far fewer than the 157 officers needed.

Photo/Tucson Fire Department

Sam Kmack
The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson

TUCSON, Ariz. — The city has taken on an ambitious strategy to address its massive staffing shortage, an issue that has already hurt city services and threatens to grow more severe if the plan takes too much time to work.

Staff shortages have affected departments ranging from 911 dispatch — where answer times for emergencies over the last year have been slower than the national standard — to code inspection, where too few workers are trying to chip away at a backlog of 1,400 complaints.

At the Parks and Recreation Department, more than a third of all positions are vacant, while about a fifth of the city’s Information Technology spots are unfilled.

And the problem could also get much worse.

More than 800 city employees are currently eligible to retire. That’s about 20% of Tucson’s 3,900 workers, creating the possibility that a third of all positions could become vacant at any time given the city’s existing 13% vacancy rate.

Nearly 100 police officers have left this year — a turnover rate that’s 37% higher than is typical — while the murder rate shot up by 55%. Shortages at the fire department forced the “shut down” of several emergency response units last month, as well.

“Some of our departments are having trouble just blocking and tackling right now. Just getting the basics done,” said Councilman Steve Kozachik. “I think we have some immediate needs that we really need to jump all over.”

City Manager Michael Ortega presented numerous solutions to the city’s staffing woes late last month. Among the strategies: overhaul Tucson’s entire hiring process, pay raises and other perks and better marketing for open positions.

The effort has already drawn in nearly 1,500 new applicants and brought some of Tucson’s pay scales up to market-level.

But other facets of the plan carry some risk and some aren’t fully fleshed out. That has created a number of uncertainties in the plan that could make or break city services in the coming years.

How did Tucson get to this point?

Tucson’s staffing problem has its roots in the Great Recession, when the city was forced to make staffing cuts because of a massive budget shortfall it was facing.

“The very first year I was doing this we were facing a $40 million financial deficit,” said Kozachik, who took office in 2009. “The financial sustainability was doing furloughs, making the cuts that we had to make in staffing so that we could get our feet back on the ground financially.”

The number of code inspectors was cut by 60%, for example. That office enforces policies that affect everything from property value to building safety and it was left with only 17 workers, a staffing level five times lower than comparable offices in other cities.

Around 2016 the city’s focus shifted to retaining existing employees primarily through pay adjustments, according to Ortega. The strategy was more efficient than hiring new workers because existing employees didn’t require time-consuming and costly training, which can also disrupt workflow.

Officials were also confident that they could recruit new employees if the need arose, but that was no longer the case when the pandemic ushered in a national trend of workers leaving their jobs called the “Great Resignation.”

It created staffing gaps across the country in both the private and public sectors, landing Tucson in a competition for workers that it wasn’t ready for.

“Employees have more choices today and they’re much more mobile than they ever have been. We are competing across the board,” Ortega said. “We’re not competing with other agencies by themselves, we’re competing in the private sector as well.”

Employees simultaneously became burnt out as they had to keep their offices functioning. Department heads said it drove staffers away and worsened the shortage and Ortega addressed the issue last month saying, “we can’t work them 60 hours a week endlessly without a break.”

The final straw: the city’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

It created the potential that the city could lose hundreds of existing employees who remained out-of-compliance with the policy after Dec. 1.

Nearly 100% of workers ended up complying with the mandate but a back-up plan was developed to deal with the potential losses, which uncovered broader issues and vulnerabilities in the city’s employment structure.

“What really surfaced as a part of this analysis is that the vaccine policy — and potential vacancies created by folks who choose to not get vaccinated and obviously would no longer be eligible to work here — is not the problem,” Ortega said. “The bigger issues are the staffing levels that we have, employee burnout, processes that are not as nimble necessarily as what the new employees might expect.”

1,500 new applicants

The city launched a recruitment “blitz” shortly after the council voted in October to fire unvaccinated employees. The strategy involved advertising Tucson’s open positions in six cities “across the west.”

It attracted 1,488 applicants across 70 different types of city jobs in less than six weeks and could provide the qualified pool of candidates that was lacking in previous months.

Still, those candidates aren’t a sure thing — the city’s hiring process is extremely slow and officials have said that many applicants take other jobs rather than waiting 60 days for Tucson to make them an official offer.

“There are folks out there who are interested but we need to make sure we can react fast enough to get them in the mix,” Ortega said. “The new employee’s expectation is that they will get a job offer almost immediately — the next day, the next week, etc. — so, we can’t wait to do the traditional review of applications.”

The plan is to revamp the city’s entire hiring process. It will include halving the waiting period to about 30 days between when an application is received and when the employee is hired.

That massive change has yet to be implemented, though officials are confident the human resources department has the capacity to make the adjustments.

HR will also receive help from department heads and a consultant — one of many who are expected to be hired as part of the staffing effort — though the city doesn’t know how much the outside help will cost.

The bulk of the expenses may lie in positions that require a high-level of training before hiring can take place, such as those at the Fire Department where firefighters have to complete academies that are about six months long.

Ortega plans to implement three back-to-back fire academies that will each bring in 30 recruits and cost about $30 million. The same could take place for police officers and other highly-trained positions as the staffing strategy develops.

The hope is that a reduction in the need for overtime pay to fill vacancy-related service gaps will offset the cost of those academies, but officials said that remains unknown.

“Parking” job candidates

There will still be a waiting period before applicants can enter academies in certain instances and the city plans to make use of them in the meantime.

Candidates will be “parked” in lower-level positions to fill vacancies while they wait for training. The intent of the plan is to both keep those applicants engaged with the city while temporarily filling vacancies in certain offices like the 911 call center.

“We could go to them and say look, we need help in our 911 center. We’d like you to think about that as a landing place while your academy opens up,” Ortega said about TPD candidates waiting for training. “That’s radically different from what we’ve ever done and I’m up for it.”

A larger issue is that the recruitment blitz didn’t bring in an even number of candidates across city departments.

For example, there are nearly 300 applicants for the Fire Department despite the need for only about 50 more recruits.

However, the Police Department received 63 applicants, far fewer than the 157 officers needed.

The city may attempt to balance those figures out by offering permanent roles in certain offices to applicants who didn’t make the cut in other areas.

“I’m wondering if we can talk to any of the fire applicants and swing them over,” said council member Nikki Lee. “For the folks who can’t make it into different positions due to — we can only hire so many firefighters — do they want to go be in another role? I think that’s a really good idea and I think we should do it.”

“Over-hiring” plan comes with some risk

Tucson is adopting a short-term hiring measure that carries some financial risk. The approach is called “over-hiring” and it involves taking on new employees to fill positions when those spots are still occupied by an existing employee.

It’s a stark departure from the traditional hiring process that involved the city retroactively starting recruitment efforts following an employee’s departure, which usually created a vacancy for a few months.

The traditional approach works when there are enough employees to pick up the slack and workers aren’t leaving at a higher-than-normal rate, but Ortega said the uncertainty of Tucson’s ability to recruit demanded the change.

“When you look at that process it assumes that I can in a reasonable timeframe be assured I can fill that position. What I’m talking about now is anticipating that an employee is going to leave,” he said. “What I do is I go after and hire someone to replace them while they’re still here.”

The city will use turnover rates to judge how many extra employees it needs to hire at any given time. Officials said it will allow them to “plug” vacancies before they happen, though there’s a gamble involved in making those types of assumptions.

If Tucson fills most of its vacant positions and then overestimates turnover rate for a particular year, the city could be stuck with more workers than it needs.

“We have to be careful because that over-hiring could cost us more depending on how successful we are,” Ortega said. “It could very well be that we fill all the positions and we have more employees than we have positions, well that’s a conversation we need to have down the road.”

The city manager said that officials can “turn the dial up or down” on over-hiring as staffing levels change. He predicts that for the next two years the city will continue to over-hire for certain positions but said the process can stop at any time.

The brakes will likely be hit on over-hiring before offices are fully-staffed and at more of a risk of taking on too many employees. Instead, the goal is to bring the turnover rate back into the “normal” range of 10%, which would require Tucson to fill about 200 vacancies citywide and then maintain that increased staffing level.

At that point the workload would be more manageable for existing staffers, services wouldn’t be affected and the staffing situation would be stable. In theory, the city could safely return to the lower-risk hiring model it’s traditionally followed.

Ortega said he will bring monthly financial and staffing updates to the city council to prevent any potential overspending.

Raises for low-pay jobs

The city recently signed off on raises for positions including community service officers, who manage minor law enforcement incidents so that sworn officers can focus on emergencies. Officials said the position is critically important, difficult to fill and has a high rate of turnover.

Those raises will take effect next month. In the meantime, CSOs are making just $16.85 an hour or about 12% below what’s typical for that position.

“They’re hiring at Taco Bell for $16.50 right now,” said Lee. “I definitely think it’s super critical that we get those folks to that $20 wage.”

Documents show that some of the city’s truck drivers and code inspectors — both positions were included in the recent pay raises and are currently understaffed — are also being underpaid by 4% and 14%, respectively.

More raises may be coming as the city conducts additional pay scale reviews. It’s unclear how many of Tucson’s positions are currently being paid below market-level and by how much.

Ortega said Tucson is in a secure place to fund additional raises even with an increase in the number of employees on the city’s payroll. He admitted there are still a lot of “unknowns,” however, and that the city may have to adjust policies as the staffing situation evolves.

“We are doing financially well. We’re stable. I can confidently tell you that, but keep in mind there are a lot of unknowns. How many positions can I truly fill? What does that look like? What’s it going to take for me to fill those,” he said. “If we have to make adjustments we can do that in real time as opposed to waiting for the budget.”

Cost of perks unclear

In addition to raises, Tucson is exploring other perks to retain its workers. They offered a one-time retention bonus of $1,000 that will be sent out on Dec. 17, and have developed a program to help employees pay off their college debt.

The student loan program will provide up to $5,250 per year for employees who agree to a three-year work commitment for each year they participate. In other words, if a staffer takes the money for three years they will be locked into a city job for the next nine.

It’s an extension of another initiative that allows workers who are actively enrolled in class to have their tuition reimbursed for a similar commitment.

The policy is “basically” complete, according to Ortega, who said the city estimates it will spend about $1.4 million on the two college payment initiatives annually.

It’s unclear how many employees will participate so the actual financial impact is another uncertainty for the time being.

“Keep in mind, those are going to have budget impacts,” Ortega said. “I’m not expecting the budget impacts to really come through until probably the later part of this fiscal year or early next fiscal year.”

Council members have also discussed providing child care to public safety workers. The idea is to create more options for employees with families, making it easier for them to work full-time.

That initiative is far from complete. There’s no real funding estimate or implementation plan, though Ortega said the city is exploring options. Proponents are still hopeful that the service can be provided in the near future.

“That would have a really, really good effect in terms of our recruitment and retention of our first responders here in the city of Tucson,” said Mayor Regina Romero. “It’s a really cutting edge possibility that the city of Tucson can pilot.”

Protecting core services

City officials also plan to conduct a staffing study in the coming year as a sort of back-up plan in case the new strategy doesn’t work as well as needed.

It will be conducted with the help of another consultant and is partly designed to help the city organize itself in a way that would allow it to provide core services with a limited number of employees.

“Where we’re scratching our heads is what happens if I can’t hire anybody else? If I can’t hire folks to come into that service, then all of a sudden I have to reset the expectation for that service,” Ortega said. “If I have 25 accountants and I need 40 but I can’t hire those extra 15 because they’re just not fillable no matter what I do and how I go at it, then I have to rethink.”

The survey is expected to be completed in about six months.


(c)2021 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)