Alexis Acquarole, a library assistant, organizes books at the Central Library in downtown San Diego on Dec. 15, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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The city started the year with more than 1,900 vacancies in its libraries, recreation centers and various city departments. That’s the equivalent of nearly 16 percent of city positions with standard working hours.  

The city is taking some steps to try to make its hundreds of openings more competitive so it can deliver the services residents expect, but longstanding issues complicate its hiring push. 

For one, the city can’t move as swiftly as businesses can to increase pay or institute sign-on bonuses. The city’s hiring process can drag on for months for even high-demand positions. And the city is also confronting the aftershocks of a 2012 pension reform measure that halted across-the-board raises and pensions for new employees for years. The latter for years put the city at a competitive disadvantage with other local governments that did offer pensions and raises. 

Now the city is trying to make up for those past decisions during a pandemic that has only added to its hiring challenges.  

San Diego City Hall / Photo by Brittany Cruz-Fejeran

For example, it resumed offering pensions to new hires last July following a court ruling that overturned the pension initiative.  

Mayor Todd Gloria has also pledged to make the city a more competitive employer. He halted a hiring freeze instituted at the start of the pandemic, baked salary increases for city workers into his budget and allowed the city to pursue sign-on bonuses for at least one set of openings. The City Council also unanimously voted Tuesday on the city’s first-evercompensation philosophy. The resolution urges – but doesn’t require – the city to continually adjust salaries to reflect cost-of-living increases and to try to ensure the city’s total compensation for its thousands of jobs match up with at least the market median. 

Yet hundreds of open positions remain on the books and San Diego’s growing cost of living is only exacerbating the city’s staffing woes. 

To put the region’s cost of living in perspective, the University of Washington’s Center for Women’s Welfare found last year that a single adult needed to make at least $18.43 an hour or $38,919 annually in a full-time gig to live in San Diego County without public assistance. Not all city positions pay those rates – and working parents need to make more to make ends meet. For example, a single parent with a school-age child need to make at least $32.45 an hour or nearly $68,600 annually. 

Michael Zucchet, who leads the Municipal Employees Association, said the city has a lot more work to do to hold onto the employees it has and fill its many open positions. After all, pay for many city jobs will remain behind other jurisdictions even with the latest pay hikes. 

“The only way this changes is to fundamentally make these jobs competitive and to effectively recruit, and in broad terms right now, neither one of those is happening at the city,” Zucchet said. “The city’s own compensation survey still shows in general the jobs are not competitive and we have recruitment challenges in terms of the mechanics of it, how long it takes.” 

Indeed, the city’s Personnel Department reports it took an average of 114 days to bring on a new employee last fiscal year – a clock that starts when a department requests to fill a position and ends on the new worker’s start date. That’s up from 98 days pre-pandemic.  

City spokeswoman Nicole Darling said the Personnel Department got approval in Gloria’s budget to fill three vacancies of its own that may help speed hiring and has also resumed predictive recruiting for in-demand jobs with expected openings, a process that paused during the pandemic. 

For now, the city has lots of hiring to do, and it’s taken some immediate steps to make those jobs more attractive 

A city of San Diego sanitation worker collects yard waste in a residential area in North Park on Dec. 23, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Sanitation Drivers

As of late last year, the city had 58 openings for waste collection drivers as it tried to staff up to comply with a new state law requiring it to begin collecting food waste and fill openings that emerged during the pandemic. 

Of those openings, 40 were for experienced drivers who can operate side-loading trash trucks. 

To bolster hiring at a time when businesses and cities nationwide are struggling to hire drivers, the City Council last month voted to institute sign-on bonuses, a tactic the city of St. Louis already successfully tried. 

New sanitation driver hires now get $1,250 in their first paycheck and another $1,250 if they remain on the job for a year. And other employees who refer a driver who ends up working at the city get $625 upfront and another $625 if the person remains on the job.  

Conrad Wear, an interim deputy director in the city’s Environmental Services Department, said the department is also pursuing a so-called special salary adjustment through the city’s Civil Service Commission in hopes of increasing wages to make the position more competitive.  

The city’s experienced sanitation drivers now make between $50,000 and about $59,000 while trainees make between roughly $37,000 and $44,000. 

“At the end of the day, it’s really about compensation,” Wear said. “Whatever we can do to get more dollars in the pockets of our employees and make these jobs a bit more competitive is good for all of us.” 

Leticia Munguia of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents the city’s blue-collar workers, said the city should have taken action sooner to aid existing workers who have faced increased burdens amid COVID-related staffing shortages and sick time. 

“It’s definitely been long overdue,” Munguia said. 

Pool Guards

As of late October, nearly half of the city’s pool guard positions were vacant and the result was dramatically reduced hours at the city’s 13 pools. 

“What happened is we didn’t have enough pool guards to open up enough pools safely,” Park and Recreation Director Andy Field told Voice of San Diego last fall. “If we don’t have enough pool guards to do that, we have to make the difficult decision to close the pool until we have adequate staff available to work.” 

At that time, pool guards made roughly $14.60 to $17.60 an hour. 

The City Council boosted hiring efforts last month by giving pool guards special assignment pay that equals 10 percent of their base pay. The move followed the city’s Civil Service Commission’s conclusion that the position faced recruitment challenges. 

MEA cheered the hourly pay hike last month and urged the city to look at other positions in need too. 

The city is now advertising pool guard jobs that pay roughly $15.30 to $17.60 an hour. 

Craig Wimberly, a library assistant, works on adding hardcovers to new books at the Central Library on Dec. 15, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Library Assistants

Last spring, Gloria shocked library lovers with a budget proposal that called for reduced library hours and a plan to lay off dozens of employees, many of whom were hourly and part-time. Gloria later revised those plans and restored budgeted library hours. 

But the initial proposal exposed a longtime challenge that city officials wanted to address. 

Library Department Director Misty Jones told the City Council last May that a third of library workers in the city were hourly and that the city has long struggled to fill those positions – and keep people in them. 

Library managers also told the Independent Budget Analyst’s Office that low pay and the lack of benefits tied to hourly positions contributed to rejected job offers and an attrition rate of about 25 percent. 

A salary study completed last year ahead of city labor negotiations showed total compensation for the city’s experienced library assistants – who perform clerical duties and assist library visitors – ranked eleventh out of 11 other jurisdictions that consultants used as benchmarks. The total compensation was also nearly 22 percent below the median. 

Gloria’s final budget replaced dozens of hourly positions with new part-time city library positions that come with standard hours and benefits to try to make the jobs more attractive.  

As of early December, the city had about 195 open half-time library positions and another 20 full-time positions it hoped to fill in coming months. 

Most of those positions were library assistants who make roughly $15 to $26 an hour and can now receive city benefits such as healthcare, life insurance and subsidized transit passes.  

Basketball courts and a playing field at Mountain View Park in southeastern San Diego. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Grounds Maintenance Workers

As of last fall, the city was short nearly three dozen grounds maintenance workers responsible for tasks at city parks such as removing weeds, cleaning bathrooms and performing routine fixes. It showed. 

At the time, experienced grounds maintenance workers made $35,235 to $41,933 annually – close to the roughly $39,000 that the University of Washington’s Center for Women’s Welfare found a single person needs to make to pay the bills in the region without public assistance.  

City grounds maintenance workers got a raise on Jan. 1. Per the city’s salary table, experienced grounds maintenance workers now make between roughly $37,000 and $44,000 thanks to a 5 percent pay bump included in the city’s latest agreement with AFSCME Local 127. 

Munguia of AFSCME has said the raises are appreciated but more are needed.  

“We have folks who work a grounds maintenance worker job who have to go and work another job after they finish our job to go and make ends meet,” she told VOSD last year. 

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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