Photo: Clay Banks

The average person probably has an idea that the New York City municipal workforce is both particularly large and particularly complex, but most people — even those who live here and avail themselves of the many services or contend with the many bureaucracies that make up its local government — are still probably way off in terms of sheer scale.

Think of a number, the number of people you think work for NYC’s five boroughs at a municipal level (not the state personnel, not the feds, NYC municipal workers). What was it? I’m going to guess you landed somewhere in the thousands, or maybe the tens of thousands. Perhaps even a full hundred thousand if you were feeling ambitious. In actuality, as per the Department of Citywide Administrative Services’ fiscal year 2020 workforce report, full employment in NYC looks like over 400,000 employees. That’s larger than the entire city of New Orleans.

This workforce encompasses everything from uniformed services — cops, firefighters, sanitation workers, etc. — to clerical staff, policy analysts, teachers, building inspectors, city lawyers, nurses at city hospitals, and probably a hundred other things. Every point of contact between a resident and the city, whether to offer or receive some sort of assistance, process some business matter or enforce city laws will involve some kind of contact with city employees.

Obviously, New York can’t function without a properly staffed government bureaucracy, and it’s important to keep in mind that the needs aren’t static. Adding additional capacity for, say, running more shelters or inspecting an increasing housing stock means adding to the headcount, and that’s aside from entirely new initiatives like the relatively recent IDNYC program. Still, that doesn’t mean endlessly ballooning staff is the most efficient or responsible way to run things. Some agencies are certainly bloated or at least can be made more lean, which is part of the objective of Mayor Eric Adams’ bringing back of the so-called program to eliminate the gap (PEG), a measure that imposes certain percent budget cuts on city agencies but gives them some runway to determine what those will be, where attrition makes sense, and how to do so in a way that will minimize the impact on city services.

Yet New York City’s workforce seems to have shrunk more dramatically and chaotically over the last few pandemic years than any plan would have intended, potentially harming the city’s ability to actually go about its crucial functions. In a dire report released last December, NYC Comptroller Brad Lander released a report pointing that while the overall city job vacancy rate stood at 8% — already far above the pre pandemic norm of 2% — specific agencies were facing decimated staffs, with the Department of Small Business Services at a staggering 32% vacancy and departments including Housing Preservation, Buildings, and City Planning near or above 20%.

The administration now seems intent on lowering these percentages not by filling the vacancies but by eliminating a huge swath of the jobs altogether. In his address rolling out his preliminary budget for fiscal year 2024, Mayor Adams said that the city “achieved most of our savings in this budget through the Vacancy Reduction Initiative, which took down more than 4,300 vacant positions citywide in each year of the financial plan.” In response to a reporter’s question over cuts to library staff impacting services like English-language services, the mayor responded with something like annoyance, touting his prior support for libraries and saying: “We are saying 50%  [of agency vacancies] we want them to remove. And that’s the same for our libraries. These are tough times and I can’t tell you how many times my deputy mayors have knocked on the door and said, ‘Well, can we spare this agency? Can we spare that agency?’”

Talk of “sparing” certain agencies or not has been particularly grating for officials and advocates who have examined which departments have been excluded from demands for cuts and reductions, most notably the NYPD. In fact, the NYPD budget has grown, and the department is on track to nearly double its projected overtime spending for this fiscal year, to about $820 million. Put another way, the police overtime alone — just overtime — is expected to almost double the collective funding for New York’s three public library systems.

The mayor’s argument isn’t necessarily that other agencies be left by the wayside while the NYPD feasts, but that no agencies will face significant reductions to their ability to provide the needed functions of government. This is, to put it mildly, a dubious premise. Comptroller Lander’s report, among other examples, notes that Department of Buildings units responsible for things like building inspections and processing financing for affordable housing construction are critically understaffed. As noted by Ross Barkan in Curbed, this is fundamentally at odds with the mayor’s ambitious goals on housing construction and other projects. He can promise as much as he wants, but they are empty promises without the manpower to make them a reality.

So, we’re left with a situation where staffers were leaving already due to pandemic burnout and increasing private sector salaries, driven out by the administration’s inflexible remote work policies and low morale, and now with directives for the leaving workers not to be replaced. Mayor Adams insists this won’t impact the city’s ability to function, so let’s put that to the test. We invite you, our readers, to let us know if you’ve been faced with delays, service cuts, or other impacts from a depleted municipal workforce. Maybe you called in a complaint about your building and have yet to get a follow-up. Maybe you were going to take a class at the library that’s been canceled, or you applied for some type of public assistance and have been left in limbo. Share your story here.

We hope to compile a few accounts of the real impact of these staffing woes, and may follow up with you to get more detail. 

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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