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Critical utility positions go unfilled

City of Palo Alto Utilities struggles with employee recruitment, retention

Hampered by sky-high housing costs and a tight labor market, Palo Alto is struggling to fill critical positions in the Utilities Department, a challenge that city leaders expect will get steeper after an expected wave of December retirements.

The challenge is particularly pronounced in the city's electric operation, where 18 of the 68 positions are currently vacant, according to Utilities Department staff. This includes all three electrical assistant positions, according to a Utilities Department organizational chart that staff presented earlier this month to the Utilities Advisory Commission. Of the department's 15 electrical lineperson positions, which are critical to maintaining the city's transmission system, five are currently vacant.

The city is now recruiting for 32 utility positions, eight of which have proven to be particularly difficult to fill, David Yuan, strategic business manager at the Utilities Department, told the Utilities Advisory Commission during the commission's Feb. 6 discussion of the recruiting challenges. 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.

"There are vacancies throughout (the organization), but I think we are reaching a critical point in electric operations where it may impact our daily operations and our emergency response," Yuan said.

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.

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Yet these problems are particularly acute in utilities, where the competition for talent is particularly fierce and where certain positions require up to 10 years of training, apprenticeships and close supervision before the employee can master the duties, according to Tomm Marshall, assistant director of utilities. The challenge is compounded by the expected retirement of several managers in the months to come, including an electrical supervisor, the manager of electric operations and Marshall's own position.

"We're likely to see a large number of people leaving the city at the end of the year," Marshall said.

While Marshall plans to retire, others in the organization are leaving for familiar reasons: higher pay, lower costs of living and shorter commutes. With Palo Alto having the highest housing costs in the nation, 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. "After a while, they look for closer jobs so that they don't have to make the two-to-three-hour commute each way to get here."

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 openings in utility positions, she said. The fierce competition compounds the city's staffing challenge, she said, particularly when Santa Clara is offering higher salaries for the same position.

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"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 negotiation 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 that had salaries 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.

"Not only do the retention issues strain our workforce and affect services, but these issues increase the city's costs of attracting new employees, including recruitment, hiring and training," the union asserted in the statement. "Many SEIU workers currently commute from great distances due to the extremely high cost of living in and around Palo Alto. Our public services are at risk as we continue to lose experienced workers."

In his presentation to the Utilities Advisory Commission, Marshall voiced a similar concern. If a disaster strikes, it could take three hours for some of the critical employees to get to Palo Alto, he said.

"Luckily, we have a few people now who are relatively close — three to four people who can get here in relatively short period of time — but for the large majority, it would take a significant amount of time to get there," Marshall told the commission.

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 at "lineman rodeos" and take a closer look at PG&E, which has recently filed for bankruptcy and which may have employees looking for a more stable environment.

She also suggested that the council consider ways to provide housing to workers filling some of the most critical utilities positions. Having them close by, she said, would benefit the entire city.

"A few salary increases or signing bonuses are not going to solve this," Schwartz said. "I think it needs to be more systemic in the way we look at this."

At a certain point, Schwartz said, the city may reach a "go or no-go" situation for municipal utilities.

"At what point can we not operate a utility?" Schwartz asked.

She also pointed to the various new utilities initiatives that the city is pursuing, including the proposed extension of the municipal fiber-optic system to all residences.

"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 City Council to recognize the problem and ensure that the city doesn't have "overly strict financial restrictions" when it comes to addressing it.

"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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Gennady Sheyner
 
Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Critical utility positions go unfilled

City of Palo Alto Utilities struggles with employee recruitment, retention

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Feb 27, 2019, 2:21 pm

Hampered by sky-high housing costs and a tight labor market, Palo Alto is struggling to fill critical positions in the Utilities Department, a challenge that city leaders expect will get steeper after an expected wave of December retirements.

The challenge is particularly pronounced in the city's electric operation, where 18 of the 68 positions are currently vacant, according to Utilities Department staff. This includes all three electrical assistant positions, according to a Utilities Department organizational chart that staff presented earlier this month to the Utilities Advisory Commission. Of the department's 15 electrical lineperson positions, which are critical to maintaining the city's transmission system, five are currently vacant.

The city is now recruiting for 32 utility positions, eight of which have proven to be particularly difficult to fill, David Yuan, strategic business manager at the Utilities Department, told the Utilities Advisory Commission during the commission's Feb. 6 discussion of the recruiting challenges. 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.

"There are vacancies throughout (the organization), but I think we are reaching a critical point in electric operations where it may impact our daily operations and our emergency response," Yuan said.

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.

Yet these problems are particularly acute in utilities, where the competition for talent is particularly fierce and where certain positions require up to 10 years of training, apprenticeships and close supervision before the employee can master the duties, according to Tomm Marshall, assistant director of utilities. The challenge is compounded by the expected retirement of several managers in the months to come, including an electrical supervisor, the manager of electric operations and Marshall's own position.

"We're likely to see a large number of people leaving the city at the end of the year," Marshall said.

While Marshall plans to retire, others in the organization are leaving for familiar reasons: higher pay, lower costs of living and shorter commutes. With Palo Alto having the highest housing costs in the nation, 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. "After a while, they look for closer jobs so that they don't have to make the two-to-three-hour commute each way to get here."

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 openings in utility positions, she said. The fierce competition compounds the city's staffing challenge, she said, particularly when Santa Clara 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 negotiation 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 that had salaries 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.

"Not only do the retention issues strain our workforce and affect services, but these issues increase the city's costs of attracting new employees, including recruitment, hiring and training," the union asserted in the statement. "Many SEIU workers currently commute from great distances due to the extremely high cost of living in and around Palo Alto. Our public services are at risk as we continue to lose experienced workers."

In his presentation to the Utilities Advisory Commission, Marshall voiced a similar concern. If a disaster strikes, it could take three hours for some of the critical employees to get to Palo Alto, he said.

"Luckily, we have a few people now who are relatively close — three to four people who can get here in relatively short period of time — but for the large majority, it would take a significant amount of time to get there," Marshall told the commission.

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 at "lineman rodeos" and take a closer look at PG&E, which has recently filed for bankruptcy and which may have employees looking for a more stable environment.

She also suggested that the council consider ways to provide housing to workers filling some of the most critical utilities positions. Having them close by, she said, would benefit the entire city.

"A few salary increases or signing bonuses are not going to solve this," Schwartz said. "I think it needs to be more systemic in the way we look at this."

At a certain point, Schwartz said, the city may reach a "go or no-go" situation for municipal utilities.

"At what point can we not operate a utility?" Schwartz asked.

She also pointed to the various new utilities initiatives that the city is pursuing, including the proposed extension of the municipal fiber-optic system to all residences.

"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 City Council to recognize the problem and ensure that the city doesn't have "overly strict financial restrictions" when it comes to addressing it.

"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.

Comments

Sally
Downtown North
on Feb 27, 2019 at 8:18 pm
Sally, Downtown North
on Feb 27, 2019 at 8:18 pm

The recently departed City Manager has intentionally left quite a few departments unsustainably understaffed to obscure the real budget situation. Many of these 'interims' are bump-ups with big holes beneath them.


Simple Solution
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 28, 2019 at 8:17 am
Simple Solution, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Feb 28, 2019 at 8:17 am

Simple solution...build a housing unit at Municipal Services & have shift assignments like the fire department. X amount of hours on - X amount of hours off.
Lodging & shared kitchen facilities provided.

24 hour around the clock municipal service.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Feb 28, 2019 at 10:48 am
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Feb 28, 2019 at 10:48 am

Such staffing is part of infrastructure. And Palo Alto's is here described as CRITICAL and UNFILLED. That's a bad combination if ever there was one.

At what point will our 4-3 City Council stop making the housing deficit worse and pause on commercial development?


Observer
another community
on Feb 28, 2019 at 1:26 pm
Observer, another community
on Feb 28, 2019 at 1:26 pm

Judith Schwartz is wrong that increased salaries won’t solve the problem. That’s exactly what the City must do to attract new employees with the much reduced pension offer. It is a no-brainer to be at least at market rate for the utilities business. Utilities employee compensation (salaries, benefits, pensions) is paid by ratepayers, not taxpayers. And, particularly in the electric utility, at least 85% of the revenues are paid by non-residential customers. And, Palo Alto’s electric rates are MUCH lower than PG&E’s.


senor blogger
Palo Verde
on Feb 28, 2019 at 1:37 pm
senor blogger, Palo Verde
on Feb 28, 2019 at 1:37 pm

This article is merely setting the stage for more utility rate increases, of which there have been too many in the past years. Maybe its time to recruit some ex PG&E employees. There will be some available fairly soon.


I had enough
Mountain View
on Feb 28, 2019 at 2:07 pm
I had enough, Mountain View
on Feb 28, 2019 at 2:07 pm

New normal what a joke. As a former employee of the City of Palo Alto. I’ve heard this a few times lately. Ask anyone who is rank and file they will tell you their manager or director is the issue. They are under staffed over worked and underpaid the city stepped up to take care of all the firefighters and police withnice new contracts. But anyone who is in Seiu forget it they won’t even give COLA to it’s workers. For one of the richest cities in America they sure treat there employees terribly.


Bill
Barron Park
on Feb 28, 2019 at 2:32 pm
Bill, Barron Park
on Feb 28, 2019 at 2:32 pm

In the years we've lived in Palo Alto, I have to say that the our interactions with the members of the City's Utility Department have been excellent. It's bad when the power goes out, a sewer lateral backs up or there's a leak on the water line. But the utility staff are always knowledgeable, helpful and hardworking.

This staffing problem needs be addressed by the executives in City Hall. Hope they can figure it out. Soon.


E.Preston
Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Feb 28, 2019 at 2:53 pm
E.Preston, Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Feb 28, 2019 at 2:53 pm

Love the utilities dept. and every employee I've dealt with over 60 years. Always helpful, courteous, innovative with problem-solving, accommodating, personal and professional. Staff have helped me save money, time and are always eager to find solutions. Over the years I've happily written to thank and laud their efforts. We're lucky ducks in P.A. to have such a responsive group who even answer the phone!


The Commuter
another community
on Feb 28, 2019 at 3:49 pm
The Commuter, another community
on Feb 28, 2019 at 3:49 pm

i commute from outer Sacto via 680 to Palo Alto. 3.5 hours each way = 7 hours commute time + 9 hours at work = 16 hours involved Monday>Friday.

This leaves approximately 8 hours at home...1 hour for dinner + 2 hours misc. time & about 5 hours of sleep before having to get up. No breakfast just coffee & a cigarette before embarking on another morning commute.

Wife is seeking a divorce citing that I am only home on the weekends & not fulfilling parental responsibilities. She will get house & child custody...I will get the payments & bills.

Looking to buy a used RV & will park it on a PA street somewhere. Just started drinking but still have a regular full-time job in PA.

Or I may skip out all together & head for Nevada or Barstow, CA.

Who needs this crap?



heading to the desert too
another community
on Feb 28, 2019 at 7:22 pm
heading to the desert too, another community
on Feb 28, 2019 at 7:22 pm

^^^^man you're wasting 35-40 years of rat-race life just so you can die at 60-65 of hypertension & you won't even get to collect social security.

i'd quit that job & split for the desert. leave the wife & kids behind (unless the children are your own). if they're yours, send some cash every month.

the rv sounds cool. why pay rent when you can simply move to another parking spot.
i got a friend who lives in an old airstream trailer out in barstow. he quit his job in high-tech & just hangs out there...smoking a little weed & enjoying a few beers throughout the day. no worries, no mortgage, no rent...just some groceries.

i'm gonna do the same. i commute from tracy to sunnyvale & it's killing me. fortunately i'm single like my buddy in barstow (although there are a couple of women who say i'm the father of their kids...no proof though).

another thought...maybe i should have stayed in the navy. they take care of you there & you don't get shot at. food, clothing, shelter, medical/dental all provided.

a big mistake joining the ranks of the working underclass. no rewards, just more hassles.


Curmudgeon
Downtown North
on Mar 1, 2019 at 1:47 pm
Curmudgeon, Downtown North
on Mar 1, 2019 at 1:47 pm

"This staffing problem needs be addressed by the executives in City Hall. Hope they can figure it out. Soon."

Amen. It needs also to be emphatically and meaningfully addressed by the city council with whatever little authority they possess. Our next round of "affordable" housing must be dedicated to critical workers like utilities. Why do we buy houses for our city managers, but not for the staff that do the vital useful work?


Get Out Of There... Pronto.
Barron Park
on Mar 2, 2019 at 1:00 pm
Get Out Of There... Pronto., Barron Park
on Mar 2, 2019 at 1:00 pm

"...man you're wasting 35-40 years of rat-race life just so you can die at 60-65 of hypertension & you won't even get to collect social security."

"i'd quit that job & split for the desert. leave the wife & kids behind (unless the children are your own). if they're yours, send some cash every month."

I agree. Get out while the going is still manageable. If the children are yours then send some money every month or so to help out with the child=rearing expenses...if they are not your children, send nothing as you owe them nothing.




Work in Palo Alto/Live in Bakersfield
another community
on Mar 2, 2019 at 3:20 pm
Work in Palo Alto/Live in Bakersfield, another community
on Mar 2, 2019 at 3:20 pm

I work in Palo Alto but it is too expensive a city for my family & myself to reside.

As a result, I spend my weekday off-hours in a beige-colored RV that I purchased used for about $4500 cash...you may have seen it on ECR among the others.

On Friday, I simply leave it parked there & hop a connector flight from SJ airport to Bakersfield. It's not cheap...about $375 one-way but if I book in advance I can usually get a price break.

I don't particularly care for Bakersfield but my wife's family still resides there & I can stomach a weekend in Kern County.

But for 5 days a week I get to live, work & dine in Palo Alto...Flea Street Cafe in west Menlo park is one of my favorite 'diners' & I can usually catch a ride to there.

The funny thing is...because of my somewhat disheveled appearance, I will occasionally be gifted with handout cash from a sympathetic stranger, usually a five to twenty dollar bill and they never see the Rolex beneath my sleeve.


Anonymous
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 2, 2019 at 5:36 pm
Anonymous, Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 2, 2019 at 5:36 pm

City of Palo Alto should share utilities with Menlo Park and Mountain View. Oh, we have our own special,scheme.
Anyway, many small school districts could merge and save on costly labor/pension expenses. Econmy of scale should work for some local government services. We are overwhelmed with high costs.


Resident
Fairmeadow
on Mar 2, 2019 at 5:41 pm
Resident, Fairmeadow
on Mar 2, 2019 at 5:41 pm

"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."

4.5 million dollars ÷ by three years = 1.5 million dollars. Divide that by four personal which equals $375,000 per year, per person. I know there is overhead; Bucket trucks, insurance ect.... But really?


Anon
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2019 at 9:14 pm
Anon, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 3, 2019 at 9:14 pm

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis

>> Anyway, many small school districts could merge and save on costly labor/pension expenses. Econmy of scale should work for some local government services. We are overwhelmed with high costs.

I find it extremely unlikely that consolidation of this kind will reduce cost. Bigger units always mean higher salaries for the folks at the top. I am certain that this is true in education; very likely, in utility services as well.


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