RVA 5×5: Needed Resources for Human Resources

by Jon Baliles

Last week we had a story about a glut of open positions at Richmond’s City Hall and the difficulty in filling them. Lo and behold, the Richmond Free Press this week put out an article about the struggle to fill positions as the department responsible for filling those positions (Human Resources, aka HR) is upside down and employees are being told to reapply for their jobs. In case you didn’t read last week’s edition, the HR department has a lot of vacancies which makes it hard to fill any vacancy in any department. HR “is involved in every aspect of employee services, from hiring and retention to designing and administering classification, compensation and performance evaluations, overseeing employee data, handling employee grievances and providing training and development.”

Think of it like a clogged sink — it takes forever for the water to get through. And reporter Jeremy Lazarus notes that word has leaked out that everyone in the department was “told at a staff meeting in early February and urged to reapply for new positions that are being advertised, but that there were no guarantees they would have jobs. But three department employees have separately told the Free Press that effective Friday, all of the remaining full-time employees are to be laid off except for the three top managers….”

And one employee spoke directly but anonymously: “We’ve been told our department is the heartbeat of City Hall, but we’ve been left in the dark. None of us knows what will happen. Maybe we’ll all get rehired. Even so there will be fewer people left to do the work,” the employee said, as result of the transfers that have already taken place.

“I don’t know how everything we’re involved with will get done,” one of the employees said. “The city is fortunate. Instead of running for the exits, for the most part, everyone has stayed on and kept focused on the work. But it becomes so stressful when the reward for loyalty is uncertainty and worry. This is not what we signed up for.”

All of this matters because if a department can’t fill a vacancy, essential city services that people depend on might take longer — if they get done at all. If Emergency Communications doesn’t have enough operators, 911 calls take longer to process; if a firehouse is down several positions, it takes longer to reach your house; if a department has a lot of vacancies, tax rebate checks don’t get mailed in a timely fashion; if there are not enough electrical inspectors, projects take longer to complete and cost more; etc. You get the idea. It also matters because from the comments made to the Free-Press, it is clear that morale in HR (and across City Hall) is running on empty. And it matters also because the City is about to embark on having elections about forming unions in the City workforce and bargain with those unions and workers after City Council approved the right to unionize last year.

Lyndon German pointed out in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the City has selected a labor relations administrator to oversee collective bargaining processes. Once in place, a mail-in ballot election will take place among City workers to decide to unionize or not and then begin negotiations with the City on terms. As we noted last year, there is a long and negotiated process that will likely take some time for the various sides to come to an agreement but it is moving forward.

And Jahd Khalil points out at VPM that five groups of workers are eligible to request an election for the right to organize: police, fire and emergency services, labor and trades, professional, and administrative and technical. The city’s police, and fire and emergency services filed their intent to organize last summer. The other three groups have now joined in with their filings.

After the election, each of the five units “will bargain independently with their unions — if their elections are successful — over various conditions of employment. That includes wages, leave, time off, insurance, workings hours, retirement plans and discipline.”

Regardless of when it happens, it will add to the workload of the HR department that is already struggling. Maybe the unionization negotiations will inspire the Mayor to finally fix the staffing and morale problems within the HR Department — or it will become known very quickly that the problems that exist will become even more pronounced and evident as collective bargaining moves forward.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond City Councilman. This is an excerpt from the original article posted on his blog, RVA 5×5. It is posted here with permission.