The city is now recruiting for 32 utility positions, eight of which have proven to be particularly difficult to fill, David Yuan, Utilities strategic business manager, told the commission. For positions like a lineworker or system operator, which require a very unique skill set, the recruitment process has stretched for more than six months and, at times, for several years, he said.
"We are reaching a critical point in electric operations where it may impact our daily operations and our emergency response," Yuan said.
Tomm Marshall, assistant director of utilities, noted that certain positions require up to 10 years of training, apprenticeships and close supervision before the employee can master the duties — and competition for these workers is fierce.
The city's recruitment challenges aren't unique to the Utilities Department. Palo Alto still has vacancies in key leadership positions, including chief transportation officer, chief financial officer, city auditor, community services director and fire chief (these positions are either open or occupied on an interim basis). And despite vigorous recruiting, the Police Department has had more than a dozen vacancies for well over a year — a situation that Chief Robert Jonsen has described as the new normal.
The Utilities Department is anticipating numerous people will be leaving the city at the end of the year as well, Marshall said.
While Marshall himself plans to retire, others in the organization are leaving for familiar reasons: higher pay, lower costs of living and shorter commutes. Many employees have to commute from far outside Santa Clara County. At least one lives in a car throughout the week, Marshall told the commission.
"We have people who come in every day from Lodi and other places," Marshall said. He expressed concern that, if a disaster were to strike, it could take three hours for some of the critical employees to get to the city.
Palo Alto's situation is not unique, said Sandra Blanch, the city's assistant director for Human Resources. Other cities that run their own utilities — including Roseville, Santa Clara and Alameda — all have vacant utility positions, she said. Santa Clara, however, is offering higher salaries for the same position.
"It's difficult to keep up with the market," Blanch told the commission. "As soon as we negotiate a new salary, our competitors do the same. We're fighting to recruit and retain the same candidates."
The topic of utility salaries has been an increasingly thorny one in Palo Alto, where dozens of utility managers formed a union in 2009 to improve their negotiating position — a move that the city unsuccessfully challenged in court. Last December, after five years of tense negotiations and litigation, the city approved a 12 percent raise for all utility managers, as well as additional raises for critical positions whose salaries were below the market median.
A similar discussion is now taking place in regard to the Service Employees International Union, Local 521, which represents the bulk of the Utilities Department workforce and which is currently in negotiations with the city over a new contract. On Monday, as the City Council was discussing its status of negotiations with the SEIU, the union released a statement highlighting the growing number of vacancies, a trend that it said has "put unfair and unsustainable burdens on our staff, many of whom are working overtime without adequate rest to continue to deliver city services."
The union pointed to the department's loss last December of two veteran compliance technicians, which left one technician to perform the work of three.
Palo Alto has taken some measures to deal with the employee shortage. It had expanded its recruiting efforts (Blanch said the department has recently recruited employees from Long Beach and Hawaii) and it has hired more contractors to fulfill functions traditionally performed by in-house staff. Marshall said the city has a $4.5 million, three-year contract in place with a contractor to do the work that formerly required a crew of three to four city employees.
Commissioners offered a few other ideas for recruiting. Vice Chair Judith Schwartz suggested that staff recruit from PG&E, which has recently filed for bankruptcy. She also suggested that the council consider ways to provide housing to critical workers. Having them close by, she said, would benefit the entire city.
She also raised concerns about the various new utilities initiatives that the city is pursuing, including the proposed extension of the municipal fiber-optics system to every residence.
"If we can't staff what we're doing, how can we staff a new function that could be labor intensive?" Schwartz asked.
Others shared her concern. Commission Chair Michael Danaher said it's important for the council to recognize the problem and ensure that the city doesn't have "overly strict financial restrictions" on utilities staffing.
"If we're not in an emergency situation, we're one or two steps away from being in an emergency situation from staffing," Danaher said.
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