Portland officials are considering raising wages for some municipal employees because they can’t find enough people to work in the city’s nursing home, child care programs and public works department.

Staff alerted city councilors about possible budget implications during a workshop on Monday. Officials said salary savings and one-time pandemic relief funding could help cover the costs in the current budget year, but they warned that the structural pay changes being sought would be an expense in future budgets that could increase property taxes.

City Manager Jon Jennings assured councilors that the quality of programming at the Barron Center and at the city’s “Before and After the Bell” child care programs remains high, but that the scope of those services has been reduced because of staffing shortages.

Jennings and several department heads expressed an urgency to consider raising pay soon to attract more workers in a very competitive labor market. Many other employers already are offering significant incentives to recruit new workers.

“We do need to make adjustments now,” he said. “There’s no waiting for the next budget cycle.”

Councilors agreed with the urgency expressed by the staff and said they expect to meet on the subject in the coming weeks. That session will be closed to the public, which is permitted under state law because it deals with labor negotiations.

“I’m supportive to trying to make adjustments. I think we need to do that,” said Councilor Nicholas Mavodones. “The city is dealing with the same issues that nearly every other business is.”

Chronic staffing shortages, especially in the health care and child care industries, have worsened during the pandemic, and the problem is not unique to Portland.

The American Medical Association reported in late May that 30 percent of health care workers surveyed in 2021 said they were considering leaving the profession and 60 percent reported impacts to their mental health stemming from working during the pandemic. And this month, The Washington Post reported that child care staffing through August was only 88 percent of what it was before the pandemic, lagging restaurants (92 percent) and all U.S. employees (96.5 percent.)

Staffing shortages at the Barron Center, the city-run nursing home on Brighton Avenue, have forced the city to cap the number of residents at 122 even though the facility has 219 beds, said Kristen Dow, director of the city’s Health and Human Services Department.

Dow said 37 percent of the Barron Center’s positions are vacant, including 49 percent of direct care nursing positions and 62 percent of certified nursing assistant (CNA) positions. In the past five months, the center has hired 33 people but lost 54, she said.

Dow noted that the city’s starting pay for support staff is $13.38 an hour compared with $17.50 at another Portland-area facility. Starting pay for a CNA is $14.90 an hour with the city, compared with $18 at another facility, where they also get a 23 percent bump if they work weekend nights, she said.

We’re at a point now where we need to act swiftly to remain competitive at the Barron Center,” Dow said. 

It’s unclear how those staff vacancy rates compare to recent years.

Nick Daniello, a newly hired recreation programmer who works in the Before and After the Bell program at Portland’s East End Community School, says, “We have people who are pretty passionate about what they do. We persevere, so we get the job done.” The program enrolled 700 children before the pandemic. It now serves 520 and had a wait list of 204 as of Tuesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Meanwhile, the city’s Before and After the Bell child care program, which served 700 children at the nine elementary schools before the pandemic, has been capped at 520 kids, said Ethan Hipple, the director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Facilities.

Hipple said the city has a list of 204 youths waiting to secure a spot. Before COVID-19, only about 20-30 children were on a wait list, primarily because of space constraints.

Hipple said he has reassigned eight recreation and aquatics managers and administrative staff, as well as two park rangers and one staff member from the ice arena, to maintain student-to-staff ratios. The starting wage for child care workers is around $15/hour.

He described the program as a “vital resource for working parents in Portland.”

“Everyday in my office we have more parents wanting to get added to that list,” Hipple said. “We hear every day the pain it’s causing these families.”

Nick Daniello, a newly hired recreation programmer who works in the Before and After the Bell program at East End Community School, said he and his co-workers strive to provide excellent child care despite reduced staffing.

“We have people who are pretty passionate about what they do,” Daniello said. “We persevere, so we get the job done.”

PAY CHANGES COULD INCREASE TAXES

The city’s public works department also has a significant shortage of mechanics, and independent contractors hired to fill gaps are stretched thin, too, which could pose a problem with winter around the corner, city officials said. Positions within public works typically start around $20/hour.

Brendan O’Connell, the city’s finance director, provided the council with ballpark budget impacts beginning next year. He said wages make up 46 percent, or $91 million, of the city’s general fund budget. Recent annual increases have ranged from 3 to 5 percent, he said.

O’Connell said a 5 percent increase in wages next year could result in a $4.6 million, or 5.4 percent, increase in property taxes. That number increases to a $7 million, or 8.2 percent, property tax increase if wages go up 7.5 percent, and a $9.2 million, or 11 percent, increase if wages go up 10 percent.

“This is going to continue to be the No. 1 budget item we’re going to talk about,” he said. “We have a number of contracts that are unsettled with our labor unions and we’re dealing with all these pressures we’re dealing with in the market.”

O’Connell also noted that the Portland Police Department is down 11 officers and the regional emergency communication center is down 11 dispatchers.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard contributed to this report.


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