Some local governments in Kansas are operating with 10% of positions unfilled

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal

In Concordia, City Manager Amy Lange has gotten a lot of mileage out of the "Kansas strong, Kansas nice" mindset.

The north-central Kansas city is down six workers. While that may not seem like a lot, it accounts for about 10% of the city government's workforce.

Residents might not notice the impact unless they're paying attention. Potholes don't get fixed quite as quickly, and it might take a bit longer for questions about taxes to be answered.

But Lange said this obscures the real impact, noting her staff is having to cover for vacant positions — even though they are already down to the bare minimum of workers that are needed to perform the city's functions.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated hiring issues that already existed pushing older employees into retirement. The competitive labor market has made it hard to replace them.

"What we've seen is kind of a perfect storm melding during the pandemic," Lange said.

Elsewhere, the problems have been even more serious. Shortages of emergency medical technicians have been brought to light as more patients with COVID-19 or other ailments are being forced to be transferred further away from Concordia.

The department has to have workers available to respond to calls. The pool of part-time EMS workers has dwindled recently, meaning that full-time staff has to be on duty more and more — something which has taken a toll.

More:'You're gonna have to ... put some pressure on these people': Kansas school COVID cluster turns deadly

Apprentice Dustin Handlin, from the city of Winfield, left, begins a training rescue scenario at the Kansas Municipal Utilities training complex in McPherson.

"Yes, they get paid a little bit better. Yes, they get overtime," Lange said. "But after about a year of that, they start to get burned out and they need a break, too."

It isn't just Concordia.

In Lawrence, the city has over twice the normal number of vacant positions. In Winfield, the city had to overhaul its pay structure for utilities workers in an effort to avoid being short-staffed. And officials in Shawnee County and across Kansas have outlined struggles in hiring corrections and public safety workers.

Private sector employers have seen struggles in hiring workers as well, but these employers often have more flexibility in increasing employee pay or offering other benefits that city governments — hemmed in by their tax revenues — are not able to offer.

More:Did price gouging occur during winter storms? Federal regulators say the answer is coming soon.

And in some areas, particularly public utilities, longstanding hiring problems have only been made worse by the pandemic.

"There was a time, several years ago, where you have several applicants and several interviews," said Marilyn Leamer, human resources director for Saline County. "And now it's certainly not like that. You may get one or two or three applications and that has, right now, kind of become the norm."

Kansas harder hit by job losses than regional peers

A shot of the Kansas Municipal Utilities training center in McPherson, which the organization started in an effort to improve their ability to recruit and retain workers. Cities, counties and public utilities have had a hard time recruiting staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows Kansas has seen a 4.7% drop in the number of public sector workers in the state, excluding those in education, over the past two years. In raw numbers, that accounts for a dip of about 12,000 jobs.

The decline is 1.5 times as much as Oklahoma's, twice as much as what was seen in Nebraska and three times the drop seen in Iowa.

Nationally, 400,000 state and local jobs have been lost since the pandemic began, with the declines continuing even as the virus situation began to improve nationally around the start of 2021.

Statewide, private employers in a diverse array of sectors have struggled to hire workers, with the situation most acute in the hospitality industry and other low-wage jobs. But the workforce participation rate has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels —yet public sector employment continues to struggle.

As the pandemic dragged on into summer 2020, the number of individuals employed in local government dropped to a 10-year low in Kansas. The figure for July 2021 would be the second-lowest number of local public sector jobs in the last decade.

Apprentices Jared Shriver, from the city of Greensburg, left, and Gavin McAllaster, of Pratt Municipal Utility, work on an electrical pole at the Kansas Municipal Utilities training center in McPherson.

From unmowed roadways to lack of truck drivers, local governments feel impact

The strain on governments is often greater, as they are often used as a recruiting ground for their private sector brethren.

Erik Sartorius, executive director of the Kansas League of Municipalities, compared it to Major League Baseball and the ability of big-market teams able to lure players away from such teams as the Kansas City Royals.

"It's kind of a feeder system," he said.

Most city and county officials agree the pandemic has prompted many workers to rethink their career paths. 

More:Kansas county pays hackers reduced ransom: 'No way we could even come close to meeting their demand'

"Lots of folks had some time to sit and really think about what they wanted their next 10, 15, 20 years to look like," Sartorius said. "And a lot of them have decided that work is not part of that equation, or this career is not part of that equation."

In Miami County, this means there are a lot of right-of-ways not getting mowed, with routine maintenance and landscaping tasks the first to be put on pause due to a lack of maintenance workers.

The health department has had a hard time attracting nurses, and truck drivers are also scarce, with county administrator Shane Krull pointing to geography as the biggest issue.

Miami County sits on the periphery of the Kansas City, Mo., metropolitan area and many residents are comfortable commuting. With urban hospitals offering signing bonuses worth thousands of dollars, Miami County doesn't stand a chance.

More:St. Francis hospital in Topeka adopts vaccine requirement; Stormont Vail's mandate not to blame for shortage

"As the marketplace for good employees has tightened, I believe that we've seen a little further of that gap between Miami County and some of the larger organizations, whether they be public sector or private sector," Krull said.

In Topeka, hiring struggles have prompted lawmakers to weigh whether it is worth requiring workers live in the city itself. And Shawnee County has had problems attracting staff, particularly in corrections and public safety — issues shared by many municipalities.

“We have a problem,” Topeka City Council member Spencer Duncan said in May. “How do we expand the hiring net and ensure that we get good people?”

Colin Hansen, executive director of the Kansas Municipal Utilities, notes the group's members -- and the public sector as a whole -- has had a hard time finding employees. If the struggles continue, services for residents might be affected.

Pandemic exacerbates longstanding hiring problems for public utilities

For Colin Hansen, executive director of the Kansas Municipal Utilities, the pandemic has merely aggravated a longstanding issue.

Nationally, one-third of the water sector workforce is eligible to retire in the next 10 years, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data. Similar struggles exist for electric utilities.

Municipal-owned utilities also find themselves in competition with Evergy and other private, investor owned utilities for linemen and other workers — companies which can often pay as much as three times more than their municipal counterparts.

These structural challenges were already facing cities, who were then slammed by the dual blows of the pandemic and Winter Storm Uri, with the record cold temperatures in February threatening the state's energy infrastructure in a way that prompted utility workers to reconsider their options.

More:Which Kansas school districts are home to the most children with COVID? New KDHE data reveals answer.

"All of a sudden, your three top utility guys are eligible for retirement, they walk out the door within a month of each other and you're struggling to backfill that," Hansen said.

Replacing those workers isn't an easy feat.

Substantial training is required to work in many of these fields, meaning grooming a new worker is not always an overnight proposition. It has gotten to the point where KMU has started their own training center in McPherson in a bid to grow their pool of potential gas and water operators in-house.

Apprentice Thomas Frederick, from the city of Hugoton, takes down a bank of non-energized transformers at the Kansas Municipal Utilities training complex in McPherson.

In some cases, state licensing is needed — a shortage of Kansas Department of Health and Environment licensed water treatment officials managers has prompted some western Kansas communities to share plant managers.

That doesn't necessarily impact services to residents. But other shortages, particularly on the electric side, could. That day hasn't come yet, Hansen said — but it looms on the horizon without changes.

"It would eventually show up in your ability to reliably run the system," he said. "The ability to respond to weather events, the ability to make sure that you are doing the ongoing maintenance that you need to keep that system running reliably — that all comes back to workforce. So you could certainly see getting to a point where a system is just not as reliable. And you might see more outages."

Officials in Winfield noticed their linemen would leave after the city invested years of training costs into preparing apprentices for life on the job.

More:'The stress was pretty crazy. It was a shared trauma': New leaders taking over COVID-19 Incident Command Team

The city opted to give a substantial raise — amounting to about $20,000 a year — in an effort to bring them in line with what Evergy was offering at their workshop 10 miles away.

It was paid for by not replacing some workers who had left — a sacrifice city manager Taggart Wall said was necessary in order to maintain their ability to support residents.

"It really was starting to create this vacuum," Wall said. "And obviously, we still have a duty to perform when the storm blows in and the power goes out. Our customers expect us to be there."

Without change, ‘It really will be doing less with less’

Historically, public sector employment represented a tacit deal between workers and their employers: Salaries would ultimately be a bit lower than what a worker could find in the private sector, but better fringe benefits would make up the difference.

But local governments — like Winfield — are finding that is no longer enough to get their employees to stick around and have had to adjust their pay scale accordingly. 

In Concordia, the city gave employees a $1-per-hour raise in a bid to make the city more competitive with the private sector, a move that will cost $100,000 per year

Even still, increasing worker salaries is something many municipalities say they will avoid if at all possible, given its likely impact on local budgets and the hesitancy of local officials to raise taxes on residents.

And higher pay is just one part of the equation, as more and more young people opt to move away from rural areas, putting those communities in a particularly difficult spot.

Many cities have focused on recruiting youngsters and underscoring the potential opportunities that can come from working in the public sector, whether that is as a lineman, a firefighter or a bookkeeper.

More:Kansas college enrollment starts to stabilize in third year of COVID-19 pandemic. Washburn down, but tech up.

"We're trying to figure out how to communicate to some some of these kids that are probably still in high school that may or may not want to go to college route and show them that there are other very good job jobs that are out there in the municipal utility industry that they could qualify for and cultivate as a career," Hansen said. "It's a tough nut to crack."

Wall, the city manager in Winfield, said the next 18 months could further aggravate the problem if inflation continues to rise, further exacerbating the economic situation of cities.

A common myth, he said, is that local governments could simply do more with less, cutting positions in a bid to save money.

The ability to cut corners, Wall said, was "really gone a long time ago."

"With the ongoing pressures, if there is no funding change, it really will be doing less with less," he said. "There will have to be tough decisions made about what services are actually provided."

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.