Hundreds of unfilled positions in New Orleans city government could get permanently axed under a plan Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced last week for an across-the-board pay hike, cementing a diminished city workforce that has suffered from pandemic-era losses. Despite official assurances that the plan will not impact city services, some employees say chronic understaffing is creating stressful working conditions and that services will inevitably suffer.
After Cantrell unveiled her wage proposal in a Friday afternoon call with employees, the New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee, a labor group, said in a statement that it welcomes any action that benefits employees, but it is “extremely concerned” that the pay hikes are coupled with workforce reductions.
“Our departments are severely understaffed," the statement read. "Eliminating positions does not solve the problem created by the pandemic and economic crisis, which have bled our departments of skilled and experienced workers. We need clarity on what positions are slated for elimination and the reasons why."
If Cantrell's proposal is approved by the Civil Service Commission and the City Council, all 4,300 city employees would receive a one-time bonus equal to 5% of their salaries, a 5% salary increase next year and 2.5% increases the next two years. The city’s chief administrative officer, Gilbert Montaño, said Monday that the combined cost of the proposals is $39 million.
Montaño said the raises would be covered by slashing some of the nearly 1,000 unfilled positions across city government, starting with those that have been vacant for longer than one year. He did not know offhand how many such vacancies exist. The administration is still evaluating which positions will be cut, he said.
The hikes would cover the entire classified and unclassified city workforce, or 4,276 employees as of June 30, according to Civil Service records. The raises would not include elected officials.
'Demoralization in the workforce'
Four leaders of the New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee – Lillian McNee, Lee Abbott, Joseph Colón and Leslie Bean – said in an interview Monday that the mayor’s announcement came with little notice and no input from the rank-and-file. It also fails to provide long-term assurances and has left some overworked employees wondering if they will ever see relief, they said.
Abbott, a library associate who works at the Latter branch on St. Charles Avenue, said library employees are rotating between branches to accommodate personnel shortages, simultaneously creating new staffing holes with each rotation.
“The more that we lose positions, and those positions are eradicated in the budget, the more work is put onto individual workers,” Abbott said. “That is already creating problems. It’s creating stress. It's creating overwork. It's creating depression. It's creating demoralization in the workforce.”
Montaño said he was not familiar with the organizing committee, which started early in the pandemic and claims to reach more than 150 employees through a newsletter and weekly meetings. But, he said, those worried about taking on the work of multiple positions have “a fair point.”
“That's where we ultimately have to work with our department directors, who then work with those frontline employees to tell us exactly where and how those vacancies can be cut,” Montaño said.
Cantrell and Montaño told employees on Friday the proposed raises are intended to reward employees and stop them from taking lucrative private-sector gigs or moving to parishes with regular pay increases. Montaño also told employees that attrition savings were the only way the city could afford the raises, adding that “we’re going to need your help” to make sure services don’t suffer.
McNee, who works in the Department of Safety and Permits, said the administration seemed to be dangling benefits “with this kind of threat attached.”
“If you want this, then you have to make sure you’re still doing the job of three people without diminishing city services,” McNee said.
The proposal comes as the administration resists funding an annual merit raise program established under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2014, in which employees receive raises of 1.25% or 3.75% for meeting or exceeding expectations. Those merit raises have not been funded since 2017.
By contrast, Jefferson Parish typically budgets 5% merit raises for employees who meet expectations, according to a parish spokesperson.
“We're never going to stick our noses up at a pay increase. We all need that,” McNee said. “We just want to make sure we don't need to continually keep fighting for pay raises, when neighboring parishes have the yearly cost of living increases built in.”
'Trying our best'
Montaño said the administration opted for across-the-board bonuses and raises on a three-year timeframe out of fiscal caution, amid economic uncertainty tied to inflation and the possibility of a recession. He said the city can revisit regularly occurring pay increases in 2024.
“The best projections and planning we could do, safely and prudently, was for three years,” Montaño said. “(After that), I think it's going to be absolutely, vitally incumbent to have another strategy.”
The Civil Service Commission, meanwhile, is prioritizing merit raises, according to Personnel Director Amy Trepagnier. She said commissioners would consider the administration’s proposal, as well as merit raises, at an upcoming special meeting.
Personnel losses the last two years have been most acutely felt in the New Orleans Police Department, Emergency Medical Services and other public safety departments. Administration officials earlier this year fought with the Civil Service Commission over one-time recruitment and retention bonuses for those employees, with some commissioners questioning the legality of the proposal.
Dissenting commissioners ultimately backed down when Attorney General Jeff Landry gave the bonuses the green light, but they won’t be paid until March 2023 at the earliest.
“It is very challenging on a daily basis to continue to do the work here and be able to serve the citizens appropriately,” said Bean, an EMS employee. “It is a little bit demoralizing. We are trying our best.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the raise plan includes elected officials. The plan does not include elected officials.