Honolulu’s city staffing crisis is affecting people all over the island.

The popular Summer Fun program is serving 2,000 fewer kids this year than city parks officials originally hoped because they couldn’t find enough staff.

The Honolulu Police Department’s workforce is down by almost a third, including some 350 sworn officers and hundreds more civilians, people who answer emergency calls, manage computer databases, process evidence and pursue parking violations.

The Department of Planning and Permitting is short 90 workers. Developers and homeowners seeking building permits say they are seeing a beleaguered core of overworked employees juggling increasingly complex design paperwork, often too overwhelmed to answer the phones.

These are all signs of an overall staffing problem. The city is grappling with a 26% job vacancy rate—with 3,079 positions open and unfilled in a workforce budgeted for 11,668.

HFD Ladder 7 parked outside the Waikiki Fire Station.
City firefighters are expected to rush to the scene when needed, but 22% of the department’s jobs are unfilled. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Many city departments are struggling with worker shortages, according to city human resources director Nola Miyasaki, and particularly those that require a large number of people with specialized technical skills.

The Department of Facility Management, which maintains city roads, oversees flood control systems and repairs city buildings and equipment, has 268 openings, which translates to one-third of the workforce.

The Department of Environmental Services, which picks up the city’s trash and handles its wastewater, is also down by one-third, with some 416 open slots, Miyasaki said.

She said the vacancies crept up over time, a situation that has been exacerbated by the high cost of living in Hawaii, which causes people to quit and move away to less expensive areas on the mainland.

“We just don’t have enough workers, and it is debilitating,” said Mayor Rick Blangiardi. “It’s debilitating to the morale of the workers, trying hard to do their best but knowing full well they are limited.”

But hiring that many people won’t be easy at a time that employers everywhere are complaining about the labor shortage.

“It’s an extraordinarily competitive hiring landscape,” said Miyasaki, who was named director of the department in February, replacing the former director, Noel Ono, who retired in December after 18 years with the city. “There’s a labor shortage and we are competing with the private sector.”

In addition, the city is saddled with antiquated procedures that some critics said mean it can take up to a year from application to job offer. By the time the rusty mechanism spits out a “You’re hired!” the applicant has found another job and moved on, they say.

Christine Camp, president and chief executive officer of Avalon Group, a residential developer, said a neighbor with construction management experience applied for a job with the city but that more than three months passed before he received a response, which came in the form of a letter in the mail.

“That’s an archaic process to hire people,” Camp said. “The city should know there is email and text.”

City and County workers assist in loading homeless belongings at Moiliili Neighborhood park.
City workers assist in loading homeless belongings at Moiliili Neighborhood Park. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Blangiardi and Miyasaki said they are trying to move quickly to address the city’s personnel problems and procedures. The city is adopting new strategies to recruit, looking for new ways to retain existing workers and trying to streamline hiring procedures to get people on board more quickly. Blangiardi hopes to hire at least 2,000.

Blangiardi said he was blindsided by the staff shortage when he took office. The issue had never been raised during the campaign, which focused on homelessness, housing affordability, infrastructure and public safety.

Once he took office in January 2021, however, he realized that his ability to make the changes he had promised were dependent on his ability to reform and overhaul personnel practices.

The city had typically hired 600 people each year but lost more than that number each year to attrition and retirement, with no effective recruitment strategy to replace workers or expand the staff where needed, he said.

“It hit me right away, quickly, coming from the private sector, that we had an incredible manpower shortage,” he said. “As I looked at this I realized this preceded, predated the prior administration, it had been an ongoing situation that I was told hadn’t been addressed by the last several mayors.”

One challenge is that private sector employers can pay more, recouping the money by charging their customers more. The city’s revenue streams are less flexible. Moreover, offering one new recruit more money hurts morale among the existing staff, who are equally needed.

On the other hand, public sector employers including the City and County of Honolulu offer better health plans and retirement benefits that have disappeared from the private sector. They act as a kind of deferred compensation, and many workers like the idea of having greater economic security in old age.

“Long-term benefits for retirees are very competitive for the city, and there are a lot of lifestyle benefits,” Miyasaki said. “Our job is to find better ways to tell the city’s story.”

HPD Honolulu Police Chief Joe Logan is greeted by Mayor Rick Blangiardi after being sworn in at the Mission Memorial Auditorium.
Mayor Rick Blangiardi says he will be working closely with newly appointed HPD Chief Joe Logan on a number of issues, including personnel problems. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

City job listings show a wide range of kinds of jobs are available. At the top are forensic pathologists, who are being offered up to $325,000 a year. Salaries are much lower for other positions, including account clerks earning $3,047 a month, budget analysts at $5,200, tax collectors at $3,856, infrastructure planners at up to $10,833, social service workers at $4,600 and police recruits at $5,471.

The low pay in many job categories is hurting recruitment efforts, said Honolulu lifeguard Bryan Phillips.

“Jobs need to be competitive in pay, that’s why the city is suffering so much,” Phillips said. “City jobs don’t keep up with the costs of the city we live in, so nobody wants to work for them. They can’t afford a city job and that’s why people are looking elsewhere.”

Miyasaki is trying to counter that problem by looking for ways to help new and existing workers move up the career ladder through worker training that gives them a faster pathway to promotion and higher wages.

The City Council is also taking note of the seriousness of the staffing problem. At a council hearing last month, several council members raised the question of pay and whether it was an obstacle to finding new workers.

Last week, the council unanimously requested an audit be conducted of the city’s human resource department, to examine how the department works and how it can be improved. At a council hearing last month, city officials acknowledged that the department had not been audited since 2006.

“From having our trash picked up, streams cleaned, roads paved and permits reviewed and approved in a timely fashion, these fundamental City operations will be impaired as long as these positions aren’t filled,” said council Chair Tommy Waters in a statement.

Each department’s hiring efforts should be separately evaluated, said council member Esther Kiaaina.

“Our overall government efficiency is decreased because of the overall vacancies,” she said. “We are being impaired in how we perform government services, bottom line.”

The problems in the Department of Planning and Permitting are particularly notorious. Even as generations of politicians pledged to boost the supply of housing, none chose to invest money in staffing the department, which resulted in it becoming a bottleneck for development plans. Last month, KITV reported that the department had not hired additional examiners for more than two decades, instead relying on contractors, some of whom did the job poorly.

City and County of Honolulu Director of Customer relations Nola Miyasaki speaks during press conference held after Mayor Blangiardi’s first State of Honolulu speech.
Nola Miyasaki, the city’s director of human resources, says she is working hard on recruiting efforts and reforming outdated personnel procedures. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The perpetual vacancies place a lot of pressure on city workers.

“My division processes discretionary permits that come before building permits,” city planner Zachary Stoddard said in an email. “We’re generally on time with our permits because we only have a couple of vacancies. But with even a couple of vacancies, we feel it. That’s two full time employees’ worth of work that has to be spread among the rest of us. So you can imagine how crazy it is for our building permit guys, who’ve had literally dozens of vacancies for years and years and years.”

Camp, the residential developer, said it can even be frustrating interacting with the department.

“I feel for the people working for the city,” she said. “They are so stressed out and overworked. It’s not as easy job.”

Six former department employees have been charged with crimes for taking bribes to expedite permit applications. One 32-year veteran of the department, who was recently sentenced to more than two years in jail, said she believed she was doing people a favor by helping them get through the process more quickly, according to news reports.

DPP Director Dean Uchida, who has announced plans to streamline the permit process and boost its use of updated computer technology, said he had been authorized to hire 80 additional workers and another 80 within the next three years.

Blangiardi, who has strongly condemned the DPP scandal, said he intended to support the changes at DPP with “energy and gusto.”

The police department, the city’s largest single department, has hundreds of vacancies but the employment picture is murky. A review by city HR officials in May performed when they were preparing the fiscal 2023 budget found 951 vacancies in a staff of 3,271.

But Michelle Yu, a spokeswoman for the police department, said the agency had 532 vacancies, 349 for sworn officers and 187 for civilian slots. She said the department had 2,777 slots, about a third of which are vacant.

A recent audit by the city found that some police officers boosted their salaries and pensions by improperly claiming overtime pay because of staff vacancies. Blangiardi has said those overpayments were unacceptable and an embarrassment to the city.

City officials said there may be a discrepancy between authorized and budgeted positions.

Another difficulty the city faces is that its existing staff is closer to the end of their careers than to the start. In 2020, the average city worker was 46 years old, six years older than the average American.

Some departments skew even older. The average age of workers in the Department of Land Management, which manages the city’s real estate, and the Department of Design and Construction, which plans and designs city construction projects, was 55 in 2020, according to a city human resources report.  Of 24 city departments, 13 had workforces that averaged more than 50 years old, according to the report.

That means that a very large proportion of the city’s workers are only a few years from possible retirement at age 62 or are able to leave at any time. The city hopes to retain as many as possible.

“No organization would consider itself healthy if it has 15% of its workforce at the age of retirement, all of which are eligible to walk out the door tomorrow,” Blangiardi said. “A lot of those people, when they walk out the door, it won’t be about head count, it’s about institutional knowledge.”

Abdurrehman Naveed, a graduate student in public policy from the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, who has been brought to Hawaii to help the city overhaul its personnel procedures, said he sees reason for optimism.

“Honolulu isn’t unique in the human resources challenges it faces,” Naveed said.

But the city is unusual among many other cities in that city officials are moving aggressively to try to solve it, he said. “It’s on top of their radar and for me that’s really good to see.”

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