Philadelphia Must Address Its Staffing Crisis
On May 26, 2022, Philadelphians opened up their Thursday editions of the Philadelphia Inquirer and read the following headline: “A third of Philly’s building inspectors have quit since 2019. Critics say that threatens public safety.” Less than four months later, on September 22, that threat became reality, when a pizza shop collapsed in Fishtown, followed only minutes later by the partial collapse of a North Philadelphia apartment building.
The episode illustrates a pervasive problem haunting cities across the United States, but perhaps none so severely as Philadelphia: municipal employees are fleeing city government in droves, outpacing administrations’ capacities to fill vacancies, and leaving residents exposed to gaps in basic service provision. In Philadelphia, as of July 2022, one in seven municipal positions were unfilled, or roughly 4,000 vacancies citywide.
The staffing crisis has allowed a host of essential quality-of-life issues, many of them chronic, to spiral out of control. Each of the last two years, more than 500 Philadelphians have been murdered; meanwhile, the Police Department has 400 vacancies. When the undermanned PD manages to make an arrest, it’s turning cases over to a district attorney’s office short on prosecutors; the D.A.’s office then pushes cases through a court system lacking in reporters and clerks. The skyrocketing rate of homicides reflects a crisis of youth violence, a crisis worsened by not enough social workers and a network of libraries and recreation centers struggling to keep their doors open. Emergency-response times are down citywide due to a shortage of police dispatchers, firefighters, and EMTs.
All this is being fueled by a spike in employee departures, often blamed on municipal wages that lag those of the private sector, as well as a lack of other benefits in the public sector, such as remote work opportunities. The same factors motivating departures render replacement difficult.
City leaders are scrambling to stop the bleeding. But there’s no clear consensus on how best to do so, and of late, a strategic fault line has emerged.
In her last City Council meeting before announcing a run for mayor, Councilmember Helen Gym proposed a bill to lift the city’s residency requirement. The law, passed in 2020, stipulates that candidates for civil-service positions must have lived in Philadelphia for a minimum of one year prior to their hiring date. It’s the strictest such requirement for any major American city and a proud legislative accomplishment of Council President Darrell Clarke, who argues that the rule helps diversify the city’s workforce and secures good, stable jobs for Philadelphia residents.
But Gym and other opponents of the residency requirement, like acting Mayor Jim Kenney, see the law’s costs outweighing its benefits. They argue that the residency requirement hinders the city’s ability to attract qualified candidates for vacant positions. Clarke and his allies – such as former Councilmember, now mayoral candidate, Cherelle Parker, an early champion of the legislation – counter that, on the contrary, plenty of qualified Philadelphians are interested in filling vacant positions. The real problem, as he noted in a December resolution, is an inflexible civil-service hiring process, which renders city agencies unable to “accommodate rapid onboarding of new hires.” He also argues that the city does a poor job marketing open positions to potential applicants, recruiting people to apply, and retaining those who do.
Many of the solutions Clarke favors are already being pursued. The City Council has approved funding for the creation of a centralized candidate recruiting unit. The mayor’s office has commissioned a municipal pay-scale study. The Police Department is now allowing civilians to staff positions that don’t involve official police work. The question is whether these solutions are sufficient for resolving the staffing crisis, and if so, over what timeframe.
Philadelphians are fed up with the perceived incompetence of their leaders and worn down by the quality-of-life issues that those leaders have proved unable or unwilling to fix. They want an end to the staffing crisis – now. It’s worth asking, then, whether lifting Philadelphia’s residency requirement would bring the staffing shortage to a speedier resolution.
The short answer is probably yes. For instance, after Gym proposed her bill to lift the requirement, Clarke tried to undermine the proposal by showing the Inquirer a list of 2,500 applicants to the Police Department – a list generated after his residency requirement was put in place. The list proved, according to Clarke, many more Philadelphians are applying for municipal vacancies than there are job openings. But data from the mayor’s office undermines Clarke’s claim.
The applicant list in question did, in fact, include 2,502 potential Police Officer Recruits. But, of those 2,502 applicants, only 487 appeared for orientation. Of the 487 who appeared, 196 failed the reading comprehension exam, and 149 failed the agility test. A spokesman from the mayor’s office suggested that the causes of low orientation turnout are many; some seem to substantiate Clarke’s position and some do not. For instance, applicants may decide against appearing for orientation on suspicion that they would fail a drug test. Such applicants, along with those who fail reading comprehension and agility tests, seem to contradict Clarke by indicating a shortage of qualified candidates from existing applicant pools (i.e., those generated with the residency requirement in place). On the other hand, because applicant lists stay live for up to two years, some qualified candidates may not show for orientation because they found other employment before being called in. Such candidates could apply for a civil service job, hear nothing for over a year, land a job elsewhere, and only then be invited for orientation – supporting Clarke’s claim that the city can hire more qualified candidates without lifting the residency requirement.
Citywide, since the residency requirement was enacted, around 13.5% of applicants to civil service positions have been nonresidents. The mayor’s office emphasized that this statistic underrepresents overall nonresident interest in vacant positions. That’s because, while some positions are eligible for waivers of the residency requirement, securing the waiver is an extra bureaucratic hoop that, inevitably, some applicants don’t want to jump through. Thus, it’s reasonable to conclude that, absent the requirement, an even greater proportion of civil service applicants would be nonresidents. And, given the nature of many vacant positions, the mayor’s office believes that the city needs all the qualified applicants it can get.
For instance, 16 of 38 Fire Service Paramedic applicants were nonresidents, along with 29 of 86 Police Forensic Science Technician applicants, 37 of 94 Librarian applicants, 2 of 2 Medical Examiner applicants, 11 of 77 Youth Detention Counselor Trainee applicants, and 1 of 8 Suicide and Crisis Intervention Counselor applicants. For positions so essential for basic quality of life in the city, the mayor’s office argues, even a handful of additional qualified applicants can be of paramount importance. One means of boosting the volume of qualified applicants could be lifting the residency requirement; another could be, as Clarke prefers, better in-city marketing or faster onboarding.
But this raises the question: if we need all the qualified candidates we can get, why not do both – lift the requirement, and pursue Clarke’s favored solutions? After all, Clarke’s arguments for the requirement are that it promotes workforce diversity and secures good jobs for Philadelphians. But lifting the requirement doesn’t preclude favoring Philadelphians in hiring decisions, as indicated by April Gigetts, the president of AFSCME District Council 47, who supports Gym’s bill: “We support prioritizing Philadelphians for municipal jobs. That work must continue, but this residency law was not the solution.” And Gym herself, considered one of the city’s most progressive politicians, has continued to emphasize the need for workforce diversity, saying “it is vital that we continue to build a world class city workforce that both reflects our communities and delivers on basic city services.”
Perhaps, then, it’s a mistake to treat solving the municipal staffing crisis as an either/or. The available evidence suggests that the city does, in fact, suffer from a shortage of qualified candidates with the residency requirement in place. Lifting the requirement could help grow the applicant pool. At the same time, it seems that many Philadelphians, some presumably qualified, are turned away from municipal positions due to slow, cumbersome hiring practices.
To what extent the residency requirement exacerbates the shortage, and whether Gym’s or Clarke’s preferred policies are better on the merits, remains to be determined. What is clear, however, is that Philadelphians need a swift resolution to the city’s staffing crisis.