The city of Santa Fe recently approved budget resolutions aimed at funding a number of high-priority jobs, but with the new year comes the hard part: filling those positions.
The city faces a vacancy rate more than 20 percent higher than at the same time in 2019 — the last “normal year” before the coronavirus pandemic — and outgoing City Manager Jarel LaPan Hill said the city is trying new avenues to help attract candidates.
“We have to keep the flow moving,” LaPan Hill said. “We have to keep bringing in new folks and meeting people where they are. The workforce does look different and there is no silver bullet, but all these different measures together are allowing us to keep our team growing strong and really allowing us to build back this workforce.”
It all started in February, when the City Council agreed to a 4 percent raise for city employees, including police and fire personnel, and additional funding to help overwrite rising health insurance costs.
In October, the council unanimously approved a $15 minimum wage for city employees, making Santa Fe’s the first government in the state to offer such a wage.
A month later, the council allocated $2.4 million to fund $2,000 retention bonuses for permanent employees and a $1,000 hiring incentive for new employees.
The council also has approved pay increases for certain midlevel positions.
Shortly after approving the retention and hiring bonuses, the city held a rapid hiring event at the Genoveva Chavez Community Center, drawing more than 140 people, said city spokesman Dave Herndon. Twenty-nine contingent offer letters were issued at the event; it was unclear how many people accepted.
Mayor Alan Webber said the city had particular success offering letters for jobs in its Finance Department, as well as bringing on a few officers to the Santa Fe Police Department, another department that has struggled with vacancies.
Herndon wrote in an email that the city likely will hold more rapid hiring events in 2022.
Webber said he felt the city has been making progress in what officials hope is the right direction.
“It’s a combination of pay, as well as unfreezing these positions and making it easier to get the hiring process completed,” Webber said. “Just putting on a good-faith effort to demonstrate the benefits of working for the city. I don’t think people really know why it matters so much and why the benefits are so significant. It’s work where you are helping make a difference in your community.”
Gil Martinez, vice president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union that represents most city employees, said initiatives to attract more employees are great, but the hiring and transfer pace has frustrated the union.
“We hear it over and over and over, that it can take months before some paper gets through,” he said.
Human resources director Bernadette Salazar could not be reached for comment.
LaPan Hill said while she has never worked for an organization where hiring didn’t move at a snail’s pace, the city is focusing on ways to increase the pace to hire employees.
She added, filling city vacancies was more about a suite of new initiatives, and not one simple fix, noting the pay raises and minimum-wage increase as just a few of the positive changes.
“It puts Santa Fe back in a competitive dance with the state, other counties, and that is really important for us,” she said.
Martinez said that while the pay increases and rapid hiring events are a step in the right direction, he feels that employee suspensions and terminations in the past few years have lowered morale for some.
“These are good people that have been terminated,” Martinez said.
Similarly, he said, increasing the minimum wage for the lowest-paid employees — while welcome overall — does not come without its own issues.
Wage compaction occurs when there is little difference between wages no matter a person’s skill, experience or tenure with an employer. Martinez said he knows of a city employee who has worked for the city for almost 20 years and makes about $15.20 an hour, just
20 cents an hour more than a newly hired employee.
“Them doing these things are great, but it needs to be a total package,” he said. “They need to address every issue.”
LaPan Hill said another class and compensation study is scheduled for the spring, but that a number of recent pay raises has provided minimal space for compaction.
“Compaction is something we are always aware of,” she said, “but the class and compensation study will catch anything we already didn’t catch.”
Webber called it a priority for the human resources department.
“All in all, I think we are using our financial resources and the team they have put together to address these vacancies,” he said.