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San Francisco Civil Servants Accuse City of Chronic Understaffing
Tuesday, May 17, 2022

San Francisco Civil Servants Accuse City of Chronic Understaffing

Hundreds of city workers in shirts representing a host of public sector unions marched around City Hall, waving signs and chanting slogans to pressure city officials to staff up key city services, which have become understaffed during the pandemic.  

Led by labor leaders from groups including the San Francisco Labor Council, San Francisco Building Trades and SEIU Local 1021—as well as a number of progressive San Francisco Supervisors—the demonstrators demanded additional staffing and better contracts.

Hundreds of city workers gather at City Hall in protest of Mayor Breed’s refusal to safely staff city services in San Francisco on Wednesday March 23, 2022. | Nick Otto

Leslie Kupper, an SEIU Local 1021 member who works as a clinical social worker with the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, said on one particularly challenging day she was charged with handling clients in four separate buildings. 

“I’m just tired, it’s been too much and it continues to be too much,” Kupper said. “Being so short-staffed means the literal difference between life and death for some people.” 

According to San Francisco officials, more than 3,800 positions are vacant citywide, which is equivalent to roughly 10% of positions laid out in the city’s budget. Labor groups argue that this has a major impact on the ability of city departments to fulfill critical functions like street cleaning and operating public transit and sheltering the homeless population. 

“Our issues with staffing means we’re like the Warriors suiting up against the Lakers or the Nets, but only playing with four people on the court,” said SEIU Local 1021 President Joseph Bryant. 

Hundreds of protesters are seen marching around City Hall during a protest of Mayor Breed’s refusal to safely staff city services in San Francisco on Wednesday March 23, 2022. | Nick Otto

Among the departments which are seeing major staffing shortages are key units, including the Department of Public Works with a 29% vacancy rate, Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing with a 28% vacancy rate and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development with a 20% vacancy rate, according to the unions.

New hiring to fill those positions is only at around 50% of pre-pandemic levels and labor groups argue the city has done little to attract new staff or retain current workers. 

At a Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee meeting Wednesday, representatives from labor groups and the Department of Public Health discussed the understaffing problem at San Francisco General Hospital, which became particularly acute during the peak of the Omicron wave.

The protest and march is taking place amid a backdrop of impending contract negotiations with the city with labor groups arguing that San Francisco’s projected budget surplus of $100 million over the next two fiscal years is evidence that the city could be doing more on the staffing shortage. 

A sign is seen at City Hall during a protest of Mayor Breed’s refusal to safely staff city services in San Francisco on Wednesday March 23, 2022. | Nick Otto

Larry Mazzola, president of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council, underscored what he characterized as the city’s strong fiscal footing.

“The city is in the best financial shape I’ve been in since I’ve been alive and now is the time to take care of the workers of San Francisco,” Mazzola said. “I’m sure you’ve seen the movie Jerry Maguire, so ‘Show us the money!’” 

While some of the surplus is due to returns from the city’s pension system, the biggest factor is federal aid tied to the Covid-19 pandemic. San Francisco once faced a two-year budget deficit as high as $653 million at the height of pandemic lockdowns, but federal relief in the form of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 served to rapidly close the gap. 

Other city departments have raised concerns about staffing levels, including the San Francisco Police Department. Chief Bill Scott has said the department is about 25% understaffed, and a 2020 report from Matrix Consulting Group said the gap helped contribute to public safety issues like less proactive patrolling and slower response times when officers are called. 

Kevin Truong can be reached at [email protected].

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