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Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story included statements and concerns over park maintenance issues raised by a resident. That portion of the story has been removed as the city was not given an adequate opportunity to respond to certain claims.
By C. Jayden Smith and Shawn Raymundo
For months, San Clemente officials, along with some residents, have bemoaned the issue of government staffing, noting delays in government services, as several vacancies had remained unfilled coming out of the global pandemic.
While efforts are underway to fill half of the 30 open roles and reevaluate other vacant positions, city management has pointed to the larger issue of apparent worker shortages and contended the City of San Clemente is not alone in the struggle.
Speaking with San Clemente Times by email, Jennifer Savage, assistant to the city manager, said that recent and historical staff attrition was the cause of relocation, retirement, and promotions. Over the past two years, she added, changes to the workplace because of COVID-19 and higher salaries also contributed to some staff attrition.
“City services are delayed when staffing is limited,” Savage wrote of the vacancies’ effects. “In addition, existing staff may start to burn out after feeling overloaded with extra work due to a vacancy, which can further hamper the provision of city services.”
Lack of staffing is an issue that is pervasive nationwide, across industries and sectors, Savage said. Additionally, local government organizations, including the Association of California Cities, Institute of Local Government, and League of California Cities, are deeply aware of the issue and continue to bring together professionals to discuss solutions.
Countywide though, employment in government positions appears to be increasing, according to the latest labor report from the state’s Employment Development Department. In the month of May, Orange County’s workforce in the government sector—which includes federal, state and local positions—was reportedly 162,200, a 2.3% increase from the previous year.
Positions in city governments in May totaled 14,900, a 0.7% decrease from April, but a 4.2% increase from May 2021.
TRACKING STAFFING COUNTYWIDE
To see how the City of San Clemente’s vacancy rate fared against all other cities in Orange County, SC Times requested staffing information from all 34 municipalities, including the average number of positions within the city government, total vacancies, vacancies actively being recruited, number of employees within planning divisions or departments, and the number of specific planners, and vacancies of the planner positions.
Only 22 of them submitted responses, including city governments as small as Villa Park and Laguna Woods, which have five and 10 full-time employees, respectively, and as large as Garden Grove and Orange, where about 550 and 650 people are employed.
While the cities provided information to most of the requests, two of them didn’t disclose their vacancies.
The overall vacancy rate among the 20 Orange County cities that did report the number of unfilled positions was 8.62%. With a total workforce of about 190 full-time employees, the City of San Clemente, specifically, had a vacancy rate of roughly 15%.
A few of the other cities—only some with similar workforce sizes, General Fund budgets or populations—that responded to our requests were seeing similar vacancy rates, such as Costa Mesa, Fountain Valley, Laguna Beach and Placentia.
The City of Costa Mesa—which serves about 110,700 citizens, operating on a $154.4 million expenditure budget and employing, on average, 549 workers—reported 73 unfilled positions, a vacancy rate of 13.3%.
Laguna Beach had a vacancy rate of 11.03%, as it reported 32 vacancies out of its 290-employee workforce, while Fountain Valley had 28 vacancies against its 230-employee workforce, giving it a 12.17% vacancy rate.
The City of Placentia, which has a workforce much closer in size to San Clemente’s, employing, on average, 183 individuals, reported 21 vacancies for a vacancy rate of 11.48%.
As for the fellow South County cities of Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano, both reported having four and three vacancies, respectively, on their books. Dana Point, which has an average staff of 65, had a 6.15% vacancy rate, while San Juan had a 6% vacancy rate.
In terms of the municipalities’ planning departments, seven of the cities, including San Clemente, reported having one or more vacancies. Savage said in her email there’s only a single vacancy that exists within the city, though she did not specify whether the staff needed a planner.
The cities of Stanton and Tustin both said they have two vacancies in their planning divisions, while Costa Mesa said it had four.
ADDRESSING THE SHORTAGE
The local issue, which had been discussed during the weekly forums that SC Times hosts, was brought further into the public spotlight at the City Council’s Fiscal Year 2022-2023 Budget Workshop meeting on May 25.
Councilmember Laura Ferguson asked City Manager Erik Sund various questions about the subject.
Sund said there were 34 vacancies—a number that had dropped to 30 as of June 13—and that the city was actively recruiting 15 positions. Ferguson suggested the city analyze whether the absences created a hardship for the city, and taking the vacant positions “off the books” if the research determined staff could function well without them.
“I’m just stunned that we have such a high number of vacancies; other cities don’t have those vacancies or any problem recruiting,” Ferguson said.
She wanted to see what was at fault for the high amount of attrition and cited quick departures by planners who had stayed only a few years, rather than previous experiences in which others who worked for the city stayed for much longer.
Sund said that he gathered from conversations with other city managers that all local agencies are dealing with turnover and “The Great Resignation”—the phrase coined by an associate professor of management at Texas A&M University that describes the trend of workers leaving their industries for alternative opportunities.
San Clemente was no different than any other city in struggling to find and retain workers, according to Sund.
With each vacancy, Sund cited a city government practice of reevaluating the position, as well as its function and pay, before recruiting or looking to adjust the position as a whole. He also clarified that the vacancies do equal hardships for the city departments and asserted the department directors could support him by speaking on their own experiences.
“The beautiful thing is, it’s because of these directors and the teams behind them that they’re able to work with the existing resources they have and still be productive,” Sund said. “My goal, and I made this very clear to the department heads, is to maintain a certain level of vacancies at our entry-level positions that are the least impactful to city operations.”
He added that along with other cities, San Clemente has had difficulties with part-time positions such as lifeguards, and trying to pay competitive rates while remaining within the budget.
Municipalities, he said, are also looking for ways to entice people to work for the cities, as the days of the government being looked at as an honorable, exceptional workplace are in the past.
“We’re going to have to get creative in how we can entice individuals to jobs with not just increasing the pay, because that becomes a budget issue for the city,” said Sund.
ATTEMPTS TO HIRE STAFF
Touching on the effort to fill the city’s vacancies, Savage noted that recruitment and retention were among the City Council’s strategic priorities for FY 2023.
“The City will utilize the best available technology and methods to recruit and retain talent, and continue to promote the City’s benefit package,” she said in the email. “Recently, the City was able to secure several internal promotional opportunities when they became available.”
Just this week, the city announced that it will host a hiring fair in mid-July, as two of its departments, Beaches Parks & Recreation and Code Enforcement, are looking to hire multiple part-time positions.
Parks & Recreation, the city said, is seeking candidates to fill such positions as recreation leader, golf course marshal, pool lifeguard, water safety instructor and head lifeguard.
During the fair, scheduled for July 12 from noon to 3 p.m. at the San Clemente Aquatics Center, candidates can apply on-site, interview for the roles, receive a conditional offer and complete preliminary onboarding with Human Resources, according to the city.
For aquatic positions, there will be a swim test portion that includes a 300-meter swim in under 5 minutes and 30 seconds, a two-minute water tread, and the retrieval of a 10-pound brick from a depth of 14 feet.
Depending on the position and on the candidate’s experience, pay can range from $15 an hour to about $19 an hour.
More information can be found at san-clemente.org/jobs.
C. Jayden Smith
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.
Shawn Raymundo is the managing editor for Picket Fence Media. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.