Too many weeds, not enough whackers - Albuquerque Journal

Too many weeds, not enough whackers

Weeds cover the median on Unser NW near Rainbow on the West Side. City officials say they are struggling to keep up with weeds growing on medians and roadways in large part due to staffing. (Adlophe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

City officials acknowledge they have a growing issue with weeds.

But it’s another problem – low staffing – that has made it even harder to keep up.

City Councilor Dan Lewis’ question about the city’s weed removal schedule during this week’s council meeting revealed how hiring challenges have played out in the streets, as Solid Waste Director Matthew Whelan said his department has only half the employees it typically has to clear weeds and garbage from Albuquerque’s medians and roadways.

“In the past, we’d have between eight to 10 median crews, which would just be designated to (maintaining) the medians throughout the city. … Right now we have four,” Whelan told the council, noting that the situation has been exacerbated by switching to what he called a more “eco-friendly” but less effective weed control product.

The city relies on a mix of full-time employees and temporary hires from staffing agencies for the crews. Whelan said the department has just 30 of its 50 temporary jobs filled.

He said he had authorized overtime shifts to expand weed slaying to the weekends, and employees have so far taken it up on a voluntary basis. But he said it is infeasible, for example, to pull people in from certain other parts of the department because of staffing challenges there, too. Trash truck drivers, for example, already have been on mandatory overtime on and off for the last two years due to shortages.

The local government – like many other employers around the city and across the U.S. – is struggling to fill job openings.

Albuquerque city government had a 20.2% vacancy rate as of the last measurement on June 30.

The city long has had trouble keeping its police and transit departments fully staffed, but a year ago announced a hiring bonus program to help find people for a whole new wave of what it deemed high-need jobs in multiple departments. The “Work for the City You Love” campaign offered hiring bonuses between $750 and $15,000. Positions qualifying for incentives include police officers, firefighter paramedics and bus drivers but also accountants, animal services officers, laborers, planners, code enforcement specialists, solid waste drivers, and professionals in engineering, finance and information technology.

The city has hired 335 people in the last year through the incentive program, its human resources director said this week. HR Director Anthony Romero said it’s been a useful tool since the payout requires completing a six-month probation and, thus, being committed to the job.

“Any time we’re getting folks right now in this competitive job market that want to come work for us, I think I would definitely call it a success,” Romero said of the program.

Whelan agrees the program has succeeded, though he said “it’s hard to tell” because his department – where trash collection drivers start at $41,433 per year, or about $20 per hour – is competing with many other employers for workers who have the necessary commercial driver’s license, or CDL. Other employers often provide hiring bonuses, too.

Before the pandemic, Whelan said his department typically had 30 to 35 total vacancies. Right now, he said, he has 112 vacancies across an estimated 525 funded positions. He said he has 26 driver openings now and only 13 job applicants.

“I think if you look at the total benefit package, we are competitive, but if you look at hourly rate, we’re not as high as some other places,” Whelan said in an interview, noting the city offers retirement and other benefits.

When it comes to weed control, the city uses laborers who make somewhere between $14.25 (temporary hires) to $15.53 (city employees who have completed their six-month probation).

Whelan said the pay is no longer much higher than people can make working in fast food or other service-sector jobs and that the city is undertaking a salary study to analyze how its wages compare to the market.

He said the city will try contracting outside firms to help with weed control for the time being, but even they may not be an option.

“We reached out to two and they are too backed up (to help),” Whelan told the Journal this week. “We’re waiting to hear from the other two.”

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