Lowell issues report showing 8% vacancy rate in city government

Like many businesses around the commonwealth, the fifth largest city in Massachusetts is facing staff shortages.

Lowell has 82 open positions in the city government — a little over 8 percent of the workforce — ranging from roles in the parks, health, police, fire departments and other non-school positions. Officials said those vacancies are the result of several factors, including retirements and wages that are not competitive with other job opportunities in the region.

City Councilors Erik Gitschier and Corey Robinson in January requested a report on Lowell’s 1,020 government jobs. Chief Financial Officer Conor Baldwin then prepared the document. In a memo attached to the report, Baldwin told City Manager Eileen Donoghue and councilors that the amount of vacant positions at any point is driven by many factors.

“In larger departments, such as in Police and Fire, turnover from retirements or other personnel related matters, such as injuries, are a common annual occurrence,” he wrote. Baldwin also told GBH that internal transfers and promotions often happen with employees.

The fire department has 11 openings and 131 firefighters currently on the job, while the police department is looking to add another 14 officers to the 177 now on the force.

The clerk’s office is also hard hit, with three vacancies out of five total jobs, which are essential to keeping track and collecting meeting minutes, birth certificates, business licenses and other important records.

Baldwin said no issues have arisen from the vacancies, and the city still manages to deliver services to residents.

Each year’s city budget accounts for 100 percent of the jobs for each department, Baldwin said. When people leave those jobs, that money accumulates and can be useful for stretching the city’s budget to meet other needs.

“That’s particularly true and in lean years. We are just coming out of the pandemic. And it’s important to point out, I think that it was not that long ago that we were very seriously considering the possibility of having to consider layoffs,” said Baldwin.

Restaurants, hotels and other venues that pay the city closed during the pandemic, resulting in decreased revenue. Even so, he said, the city managed to avoid layoffs.

“You have to be alarmed when you see that type of number — 82 currently vacant — in any municipal government, because those positions are put there to serve the public,” said Councilor Gitschier in a phone interview.

Gitschier, who has worked in municipal government for 33 years, said there are other factors that play into this, including low wages and human resources not promptly posting job descriptions.

“I think it comes down to lower salaries for employees. I think it comes down to the COVID issue,” said Gitschier.

He added that he wants to see a wage study conducted to evaluate current pay for employees.

“We’re in a competitive market looking for the same workforce. So we have to have competitive wages in the same offerings. And right now, we do not have that,” he said.

Baldwin acknowledged that the city has to compete with the private sector and other municipalities to get employees. The problem is apparent in the public works department, he said.

“The specific example that comes to mind is HVAC technicians, who can make a much better wage in the private sector than they can in the public sector these days,” he said. “We are struggling to compete with wages with the private sector right now.”

He recognizes that if the city conducts a study, and if that study tells the city it needs to raise wages to be competitive, that decision will impact the budget. Baldwin said that extra money would likely come from taxes.

Given Lowell’s designation as a Gateway City — which is a midsized urban center facing social and economic challenges — that’s cause for concern. Baldwin said residents might not be able to afford any increase in taxes.

In the end, he wants to put in a plug for people seeking municipal employment in a unique city.

“I’m a cheerleader for the city, and I think we have something to offer. It’s just hard to quantify that, and hard to put it in a job description,” he said. “But there’s a quality about Lowell that makes us different.”