Most days, the South Philadelphia Library is open only for people to pick up books they reserved online. At the neighborhood cornerstone, on Broad Street, the rest of the library is closed: no browsing, no programming, no summertime respite.

That’s because it has just one full-time librarian. Due to a shortage of workers, she conducts story time in a nearby park; the library can be too chaotic for a single librarian to manage.

“It’s dire,” said Rachel Hludzinski, the 28-year-old librarian. “And there is no long-term plan.”

The situation is emblematic of a much larger problem: Not enough people want to work for the city of Philadelphia. Long one of the largest employers in the region, the city is short-staffed amid a rash of pandemic-era resignations and retirements — and so far, it is not recovering as quickly as other municipalities.

A steady trickle of employees fleeing government service over the last three years means about 4,000 budgeted positions are currently unfilled.

In all, about 1 in 7 municipal jobs is vacant.

The shortages complicate the delivery of basic city services. Although advocates long ago sounded the alarm over thinning ranks of police, correctional officers, and prosecutors, the losses touch every corner of the government.

The Fire Department has more than 700 vacancies, meaning 1 in 5 positions is unfilled. Until last week, the city hadn’t graduated a new class of firefighters or paramedics in more than a year and a half.

The Department of Human Services is short on social workers. The courts have bled court reporters and clerks faster than they can hire replacements.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department, which saw its budget slashed and then restored during the pandemic, is down dozens of rec center staffers.

And leadership of the Free Library of Philadelphia says that although it hopes to normalize service with a budget increase approved last month, funding is only part of the problem — it can’t hire fast enough.

Michael Zaccagni, interim director of the city’s Office of Human Resources, acknowledged that the city has struggled to fill positions.

“In those areas where you have skilled tradespeople, those areas where there are technical people, and those areas in public safety, we are having difficulties attracting candidates and holding on to candidates,” he said.

Zaccagni and other officials blame the so-called Great Resignation, the record-breaking, nationwide wave of employee departures that took hold through the pandemic. Philadelphia city government’s employee separation rates increased by nearly 40% in 2021, driven largely by a near doubling of resignations compared with the prior year.

Nationally, public-sector employment was hammered in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data show. The deepest declines were in local governments, which hemorrhaged more than a million employees across the country.

The public sector generally lagged behind the private sector in recovering lost workers last year. But local government hiring across the country has been on a gradual upswing this year, adding back tens of thousands of employees every month.

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The same cannot be said about Philadelphia or several other major cities, such as New York, which have not made up for a crushing exodus of city workers.

The most recent data available show that the municipal government here has shed anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred employees every month since mid-2020. Workers continue to leave, with total employment down 2.9% over the last year as of May.

Joy Huertas, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, said hiring plummeted in 2020 due to a citywide hiring freeze but had “rebounded,” projecting the city would meet pre-pandemic hiring levels this year.

But that may not be enough to make up for two years of losses.

Anecdotally, the hyper-competitive labor market made it harder for the city to retain and attract talent. While the private sector threw flexible hours, signing bonuses, and other perks at job applicants last year amid a nationwide worker shortage, the city has a structured pay plan that critics say is inflexible to trends, and remote work opportunities vary widely by department.

In addition to its months-long job application process, the city has some of the most stringent residency requirements in the country. And until new funding was approved last month, Philadelphia was one of the only major American cities without a centralized recruiting unit.

Catherine Scott, president of AFSCME District Council 47, the union that represents white-collar municipal workers, noted that attrition leads to more losses. The more workers leave, the more work gets shifted on remaining employees, increasing stress and making it harder to take time off. More workers get dissatisfied and leave, and the cycle repeats.

She cited Licenses and Inspections, which has lost nearly a third of its building inspectors, as particularly short-staffed.

“When they feel they can’t do the workload,” Scott said, “it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m just going to go to the private sector, where I don’t lose sleep at night worried about what building is going to collapse.’”

‘We’re losing a lot of people’

The Prisons Department has for months been understaffed after correctional officers quit en masse, creating a dire situation that staff and prisoners told The Inquirer has led to riots, assaults, and deaths.

Shortages in the Police Department also have been well-documented. The force, authorized to have 6,300 officers and nearly 1,000 more civilian staff, has about 400 vacancies, and hundreds more officers are off-duty on injury claims. The department saw 195 uniformed officers retire last year, double from five years prior.

In April, just 41 recruits finished the police academy. They were the first graduating class in more than a year.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw has said staffing is at a critical low. She blamed the wave of departures in part on a political environment she saw as unfriendly to police, saying during a budget hearing this year that “the narrative over the last couple of years … undermined our credibility and authority.”

John McNesby, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, blames friction with his political foe — progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner — and acknowledges other factors.

“We’re losing a lot of people to resignations, whether it’s that they don’t want to work with the DA, morale is low, staffing is low, they can’t get time off,” he said. “[The city] has to do something more to attract the potential candidate pool.”

While law enforcement nationally have cited low morale as drivers of staff loss, workers in the courts have also left in droves. Gabriel Roberts, a spokesperson for the First Judicial District, said the system has had particular trouble replacing court reporters and interpreters, who have specific skill sets and certifications.

The city points to higher-stress jobs such as these — critical, in-person roles — as a main driver of attrition.

Dan Kane, a former assistant district attorney who recently left the economic crimes unit in Krasner’s office, was one. While Kane said the nature of his job was sometimes draining, he considered the workload, pay, and benefits to be adequate. The job market drove his departure, not stress or the lack of remote work, he said.

“There was no one thing,” he said. “When I just sort of sent out some job applications, I got interviews really quickly. And I just decided, you know, I’m proud of the service I rendered when I was there, but it was time for me to do something else.”

Almost every city department’s workforce shrunk over the last two years, even those that largely shifted to remote work.

In March, 26,836 people worked for the city, compared with 28,640 two years prior — not counting thousands more government jobs within the school district. In 2021, about 11% of the total city workforce either resigned or retired, according to an April report by the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, better known as PICA, a state board that conducts financial oversight of the city.

That’s a significant increase in separations — 6.4% was the average between 2017 and 2019, according to PICA. The hike in 2021 was largely due to resignations among millennials — defined as ages 26 to 40 — though all age groups saw notable jumps.

Some of these former city employees cited personal reasons for their departures.

Ariel Diliberto, 32, quit a full-time job as a city planner last year to work part time as a bookkeeper while pursuing “van life” on the open road with her partner, another municipal employee who resigned.

Speaking over the phone while camped in rural Maine, Diliberto explained that she wanted to work for the city to “serve public interests.” But city leaders’ deference to interest groups often made her job feel like a powerless, purely advisory role, she said.

Diliberto said the optimism she felt going into the job eroded, and the pandemic made her realize life was too short. She hopes to engage in progressive organizing with her newfound free time.

“I felt like I could actually do more by not working for the city,” she said.

What the city is doing to attract workers

Stephen Goldsmith, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former deputy mayor of New York City, said public sector attrition is a national problem, with a hyper-competitive labor market in both the public and private sectors.

“They’re getting job offers that pay more money,” he said. “There’s more mobility in the workforce, given the demand for labor is quite high.”

But these trends tend to be more acute in older U.S. cities such as Philadelphia, Goldsmith said. In part, this stems from the fact that Northeastern and Midwestern cities historically tended to pay less than the private sector for similar work, impose stricter civil service rules, and have a workforce that skews older — making places such as City Hall more susceptible to attrition via retirement.

The city is employing a variety of tactics to compensate.

City Council last month approved funding to create a new centralized recruiting unit. While a handful of larger departments, including police, have their own recruiters, most agencies rely on the city’s human resources department. Zaccagni said the four-member unit could be launched this year.

The administration also has waived the city’s residency requirement in certain instances, allowing the city to open up hiring for 26 different types of positions, including police officers and correctional officers. Individual candidates have also been granted waivers.

Still, both Zaccagni and Goldsmith suspect that these rules are still having a chilling effect on some applicants for other rank-and-file positions.

The residency requirements were amended in 2020 to require all applicants for civil service positions — about 80% of the workforce — to live in the city for a year before applying. The intention, Council leadership said, was to give a hiring advantage to city residents and diversify the Police Department. Kenney opposed the rule change, which passed City Council with a veto-proof majority and became law without his signature.

Today, Philadelphia is the only large city to impose such a “pre-residency” requirement, according to a 2020 Pew Charitable Trusts study.

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To Goldsmith, the labor shortage is an opportunity to reform these civil service practices, or provide alternative pathways to city jobs. He points to programs such as Los Angeles’ Targeted Local Hire initiative which — as opposed to blocking nonresidents from jobs — prioritizes applicants from zip codes below the city’s median household income, or from certain vulnerable populations, for rapid placement into full-time trainee positions.

“Philadelphia is not that much different from other major cities,” Goldsmith said. “There’s hope that they can do what even larger companies are doing, which is examining all of your qualifications to see how they are prohibiting entry for nontraditional workers in city government.”

An uncertain outlook

The administration insists that staffing is stabilizing. Huertas said 2022 numbers show a 20% decrease in resignations and overall attrition compared with 2021. Payroll data show that the Streets Department, stricken by sanitation worker shortages during the pandemic, recently turned a corner following a hiring blitz after months of late trash pickup.

Zaccagni said the city can focus its efforts on four departments he says drove a majority of the resignations in 2020 and 2021: police, prisons, the courts, and the District Attorney’s Office.

McNesby, from the FOP, said signing bonuses or more flexibility in scheduling would “go a long way.” He praised a $250,000 investment in police recruiting approved by City Council last month, as well as residency requirement waivers.

But the department is still bleeding officers, McNesby said, and many are taking jobs in other departments. He worries that conditions will get worse before they get better.

Other departments are losing workers because short staffing has led to burnout, said Darnell Davis, business agent of District Council 33 Local 1637, which represents civilian fire and police dispatchers.

Davis said the Fire Department hasn’t been able to fill dispatcher vacancies and resorted to mandating overtime. It means fatigued fire dispatchers may keep quitting.

“You go home and eight hours later, you’re ordered to come back in,” Davis said. “It’s uprooting people’s lives.”

In every department, though, there are those who are persevering. Hludzinski, the librarian, said that despite often struggling just to open her library’s doors, she intends to stay in the job as long as she can.

“It’s important to me to feel like I can be about my daily life and run into kids I know from story time. I really want that,” she said. “I want it enough that I’m willing to stick it out a little bit longer in hopes there is some change.”