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Politics & Policy

It takes 150 days to hire a San Francisco worker. Mayor says that’s progress

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, with a serious expression, looks towards the right of the frame as she's surrounded by unidentifiable people that are out of focus.
Mayor London Breed says the city is hiring people at a faster rate and services are improving, but a budget deficit could hamper her plans. | Source: Justin Katigbak/The Standard

San Francisco has an embarrassingly slow process to hire new staff, but Mayor London Breed touted progress Friday in filling vacant city jobs thanks to a 2022 initiative that began to streamline the application, interview and hiring process.

Whether the hiring spree continues is unclear because the city is staring down huge budget deficits that could climb as high as $800 million over the next two fiscal years. But the Mayor’s Office said a multi-agency effort that included the City Administrator and Controller’s offices, as well as the Department of Human Resources, has reduced the average time to fill all job types to around 150 days—compared with the average 255 days cited in a Civil Grand Jury report last summer.

“We are working every day to overcome bureaucratic obstacles to deliver services faster and more reliably,” Breed said in a statement. “We are seeing improvements to our hiring, contracting and government operations, which means better service for our residents, workers and businesses.”

Last year’s Civil Grand Jury report identified an “unprecedented hiring crisis,” leading to service issues such as longer waits for Muni buses and responses to 911 calls, and reduced levels of care in city hospitals. Another byproduct of the staffing shortage, particularly in the police department, has been a large increase in overtime.

An ambulance enters a hospital.
Ambulance response times in San Francisco have suffered as a result of ongoing staffing shortages. | Source: Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

The multi-agency effort—dubbed the Government Operations Recovery Initiative, or “GovOps”—has led to a 50% surge in applications for vacant city positions compared with last year, a 25% increase in hires, a 25% drop in the time to complete hires and a nearly 30% drop in the job vacancy rate, according to the Mayor’s Office.

City officials identified a number of issues resulting in hiring slowdowns, ranging from legacy processes in the city’s civil service system to the Covid pandemic.

“We are laser-focused on reforming a system that was created over 120 years ago to better match the city’s contemporary needs,” Carol Isen, the city’s director of human resources, said in a statement.

The Civil Grand Jury report released on June 21 noted that city job vacancies had doubled since the start of the pandemic, from 6.8% in 2019 to 13.7% in 2023. This was caused, in part, by the lasting effects of a hiring freeze. 

“It’s hard to overstate just how severely the city’s service delivery capabilities were affected by the public health emergency,” Controller Ben Rosenfield in a statement.

Among the key hiring improvements are improved marketing strategies for open jobs and automated reference checks. Improvements in contracting include a standardized online portal for contract review, online noticing of future contract opportunities and streamlined approvals.

“Over the last year, the Government Operations team has been working to identify and make changes to improve how we hire, buy goods and services and make payments,” City Administrator Carmen Chu said in a statement. “[These] are core operational processes that are pain points for every department and have a huge cumulative impact on how we deliver public services. Each positive change, no matter how small, makes a difference.”

The Grand Jury report cited the Department of Public Health as suffering from the highest vacancy rate, with over 1,000 unfilled positions of around 4,700 vacancies among all city departments at the end of 2022. The hardest hit were nursing positions at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

Nurses protest outside of a hospital.
Dozens of nurses at UCSF on Sept. 26, 2023, protested the staff shortages that increase the risk of workplace violence for health care providers in San Francisco. | Source: Noah Baustin/The Standard

City officials told The Standard that the health department saw its job vacancy rate improve from 13.5% at the beginning of last year to 11% as of this month. The rate for registered nurses dropped from 12.2% to 9.62% during those respective periods.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency showed more dramatic improvements in hiring by bringing down its vacancy rate from 12.5% to 4.93% over the last year, according to the city’s HR department. The number of funded full-time jobs for the transit agency dropped by more than 270 positions, but the vacancies decreased by more than 470, suggesting the agency didn’t just eliminate jobs to improve its numbers.

San Francisco’s funding for transit operators remained static with 2,598 positions over the last year, while the vacancies from February 2023 to last month dropped from 161 to 96, according to the city’s HR department.

Job vacancies have become a key political wedge ahead of elections this year. Last month, Supervisor Ahsha Safaí—a challenger to Breed in November—proposed a $39.5 million appropriations bill supporting overtime for health workers, stating the funds were originally set for hiring nurses and other medical support positions at San Francisco General Hospital as well as Laguna Honda, one of the largest skilled-nursing facilities in the country.

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí speaks during a Board of Supervisors meeting.
Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who is running against Mayor London Breed in November's election, has made low staffing levels one of his top legislative priorities. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

The appropriation—as well as earlier calls for boosts in police overtime, which proved controversial at the board—shows how job vacancies can counterintuitively become expensive through the necessity of paying for overtime.

Breed has made police staffing one of her top priorities, as the department had 1,862 sworn officers as of last month, well below the city’s recommended number of 2,074. However, the city’s new initiative to streamline hiring is mostly separate from police staffing due to the complexity of officer background checks and training.

The department has 1,568 officers currently available due to a variety of factors, from disability and medical issues to discipline, said Evan Sernoffsky, a police spokesperson. The department started last year with 1,652 active officers, but that number fell by almost 100 by December due to retirements, resignations and officers transferring to other agencies.

“Our officers are doing a fantastic job despite being so short-staffed,” Sernoffsky said. “We hope with our aggressive recruiting efforts we’ll have more officers joining the force soon to help us make up the shortage.”

A police academy class graduating in February is expected to include 22 new officers, Sernoffsky said, while recruiting efforts for the spring class could lead to as many as 27 officers.

Josh Koehn can be reached at josh@sfstandard.com