Berkeley has been hemorrhaging employees faster than it can attract new ones, creating a vicious cycle of ever-worsening morale and workloads, driving more and more people out of city employment and hampering city services, according to a June report from the Berkeley City Auditor’s office.

Picture of Berkeley City Auditor Jenny Wong.
Berkeley City Auditor Jenny Wong in 2022. This month, she reported that city staffing shortages have created a negative feedback loop. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The city also had no proper way of tracking employees’ needs or data that would help them address staff shortages, and put ever-increasing pressure on a Human Resources Department that was itself understaffed, according to the report from City Auditor Jenny Wong, senior auditors Caitlin Palmer and Erin Mullin and auditors Kendle Kuechle and Pauline Miller.

Approximately 19% of city positions were vacant as of October 2022, according to the report.

“Berkeley’s staff shortages constrained city services, but the city did not have a clear strategy to improve retention during our audit period,” the first finding reads. “More employees left the city than were hired in each year of the audit period.” The report spanned five fiscal years, from 2018 to 2022.

The staffing vacuum and rapid turnover mean city agencies also lose institutional knowledge and experience in some city processes, according to the audit.

With fewer workers on the city rolls, city services have declined, including at clinics and senior centers, according to the audit. Some fire stations were forced to close temporarily.

On this page from a city audit report, employees discuss management, compensation, telework, COVID-19, and more. Image: City of Berkeley

The police and fire departments have been forced to invoke mandatory overtime. Strapped for patrol officers, the police department consolidated its patrol beats earlier this year, cutting them from 16 to 14.

Police overtime, a side effect of the department’s understaffing, was the subject of an audit last year, with Wong’s team concluding overtime had been a leading cause in the department blowing past its general fund budget four of the five years before that audit was filed.

“According to the city manager, vacancies in the Transportation Division have also contributed to delays in a major transportation project,” according to the audit. “Such delays may limit the city’s ability to achieve goals such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions or improving traffic safety.”

Also tied to greenhouse gas emissions, although not exclusively, the auditors recommended the city develop a “comprehensive telework policy.”

Besides cutting down on pollution, the auditors concluded that telework “increased employee wellbeing and overall satisfaction” when employees were able to work from home during the pandemic years.

“Telework can improve the recruitment pipeline by increasing the pool of applicants to city positions,” as well as saving the city money on maintaining brick-and-mortar offices, the auditors wrote.

In this page from a city audit, employees discuss satisfaction with and workloads from city jobs. Image: City of Berkeley

Employees in the City Attorney’s Office and Human Resources Department appear to last the shortest, with respective average tenures of 2.5 and 3.1 years, according to the audit. Police department employees, by comparison, had been on the job an average of 12.5 years as of October.

The Human Resources Department had the highest vacancy rate — 45% — of any city department at the end of the audit period. The City Attorney’s Office came in second with 35% and the finance office third with 30%.

On top of the human resources’ vacancy rate, the department’s budgeted positions, filled or not, “did not keep pace with increases in budgeted positions citywide,” meaning even heavier workloads on employees, according to the audit. And four different directors were in charge at different times during the audit period.

A page from a City Auditor’s report shows responses from former workers asking why they left Berkeley. Image: City of Berkeley

There was a corresponding three-month jump, from 4.9 to 7.7 months, in the average time it took to fill positions between 2018 and 2022.

While the city had set goals to attract and retain employees, it did not appear to have an actual strategy for it, according to the audit.

On top of being assigned too much work for insufficient pay and with too little training, city employees also “receive new work beyond their regular duties, including referrals from City Council or public commissions,” according to the audit.

Fewer than half of city workers reported that they had manageable workloads or were satisfied with their opportunities for career advancement.

A June 2023 audit report page shows city workers’ complaints with supervisors and other work issues. Image: City of Berkeley

The auditors recommended that the council “consider staff capacity when introducing new legislation, and limit or prioritize new legislation during periods of short staffing,” and that “the city manager’s office report on the status of approved projects to City council, including information about delays caused by staff vacancies.” They also recommended the city set up retention goals, analyze what staffing is needed for city operations and services, work to increase employee satisfaction, streamline its hiring process, modernize its recruiting process “and regularly collect data on employee satisfaction and on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.”

The audit is scheduled for discussion at the City Council’s July 11 meeting. In a letter to the council, Wong recommended that City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley begin reporting biannually starting in January on how the city has progressed in addressing the issues the auditors found.

“While recruitment and retention have always been high priorities for the City, the challenges of emerging from a pandemic, which significantly impacted the way we work, created a setting where such efforts must now be the organization’s top priority,” city spokesman Matthai Chakko wrote in an email.

In September, Williams-Ridley began developing a roadmap to make Berkeley an “Employer of Choice,” he said. “We already see the positive results of these initial efforts, as highlighted by a 2:1 ratio of hiring over attrition since January.”

Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...