From retail stores and dining to health care and manufacturing, employers around the country and in Western North Carolina are experiencing a labor shortage. Between the “Great Resignation” — the wave of people leaving jobs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — historically low unemployment rates and a reduced labor force, the staffing crisis has been particularly acute for jobs that require in-person attendance, offer low wages or come with high stress levels.
Local governments have not been spared. Both the city of Asheville and Buncombe County are feeling the employment squeeze.
Buncombe County spokesperson Kassi Day says that, as of April 25, the county had 178 positions open out of its roughly 1,500-person workforce. Departments with the most vacancies include the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and Detention Center, 911 Communications and Emergency Services.
Meanwhile, Asheville spokesperson Kim Miller says the city was 134 vacancies short of its approximately 1,200-employee target as of May 19. The Asheville Police Department currently has the most job openings, followed by the city’s Public Works Department, which oversees waste removal and sanitation.
Xpress took a look at the hardest-hit local departments to learn how job openings might be impacting residents and what governments are doing to hire staff amid nationwide recruitment challenges.
Copping some cops
APD Public Information Officer Bill Davis says that while the police’s staffing prospects are slightly better than a year ago, when the department announced a critical employee shortage, it’s still experiencing challenges retaining and recruiting new officers.
APD had 52 sworn officer vacancies out of 238 funded roles as of May 4, including patrol, criminal investigations and community engagement positions. That number is down from 72 vacancies in April of last year; in June 2021, City Council raised starting officer annual pay by over 20% to about $45,000.
Last June, APD announced that it would not respond to certain types of calls as a result of staffing shortages. That policy remains in place, says Davis, and he doesn’t know when the department will change practices. But he emphasizes that public safety remains a top priority.
“Increasing our staffing levels requires men and women willing to serve with APD, but also a commitment by leaders in the community and support from the public that serving as a law enforcement officer for the Asheville Police Department is quite honorable,” he says.
Thirteen recruits are currently in basic law enforcement training and are due to graduate in early June, with field training starting in mid-July. The next class will begin training in late June and currently has 12 recruits enrolled.
Aaron Sarver, spokesperson for the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, says that his agency is also experiencing shortages. But compared with the APD, the Sheriff’s Office is down fewer officers in enforcement positions, such as detectives and patrol.
Only 14 positions are open for those roles out of about 200, which Sarver attributes to the department leading the region in wages. He says a starting Buncombe patrol officer makes $45,623 per year.
Instead, the bulk of his department’s vacancies are within the Buncombe County Detention Center, which is short 42 officers out of roughly 200. Sarver maintains that despite the numbers, the Sheriff’s Office still meets the minimal staffing requirements regulated by the state. (The jail has faced recent criticism over inmate safety, with a January report by the Citizen Times finding that the detention facility had the worst death rate of any jail in North Carolina from 2008-21.)
He says that COVID-19 protocols made the already difficult job of managing inmates in a congregate living system even more challenging for detention officers, who became responsible for duties such as temperature checks and enhanced cleaning.
“It’s a tough, demanding job. And you know, we were paying people $19 an hour,” Sarver explains. “But in this labor market, when it’s fairly easy to find a lot of fast-food places starting at $18, $19, $20 an hour, that’s tough.”
To remain competitive, Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller requested a pay raise of up to $7 per hour for all jail employees. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a $3 hourly bump at its April 19 meeting, at an estimated annual cost to taxpayers of $864,000.
Sarver says that the raise is an improvement. “We’d love to cut those 42 positions in half,” he adds. “Hopefully, the pay raise will be a big boost. I think time will tell on that.”
Trash and transit
City spokesperson Miller says that Asheville’s Public Works Department, which oversees sanitation, stormwater and street cleaning, is down about 20 employees from a workforce of over 160. Greg Shuler, Asheville’s public works director, explains it’s particularly hard to hire highly specialized roles like garbage truck operators with workers in high demand by other employers.
During this year’s annual retreat, Council members voted to make “improving/expanding core services” one of their priorities for the year, a move that Shuler praised. However, Council and city staffers shared no specific goals or metrics for those priorities.
Meanwhile, Miller says that the city’s Transportation Department is approximately 26% below its regular staffing levels. One consequence of the ongoing vacancies is reduced capacity for Asheville’s bus system, including regularly reduced service on several routes and sporadically missed trips on others.
While members of Council are considering a $1.1 million allocation to implement the next phase of the Transit Master Plan, which would extend evening hours and route frequency, Asheville Finance Director Tony McDowell warned at an April 12 work session that bus driver shortages would likely delay the implementation of those extensions.
Van Taylor Jones, who heads Buncombe County’s Emergency Services, says his department is growing in response to an estimated 30% increase in call volume over the last two years.
“What we’re seeing is the new normal. We’re being proactive. We’re seeing an increase in call volume; we’re putting on additional staff to meet that demand,” he says.
But funding positions is different from finding workers. The department had 22 vacancies as of April 27, 14 of which were newly created paramedic positions approved earlier this fiscal year by the Board of Commissioners.
One result of the ongoing staffing shortages is that emergency response times have risen well above national standards. During an Oct. 19 briefing, the Board of Commissioners heard that for 90% of Buncombe’s emergency calls, an ambulance is on-scene within 18 minutes of dispatch, around double the goal set by the National Fire Protection Association.
Jones says that the workforce problems reflect a national trend induced by pandemic-related burnout and low wages. He says that fewer folks are interested in pursuing the high-stress career.
“We’ve really not had a lot of turnover, per se. Our [pre-pandemic] turnover rates have been around 20%, which is basically in line with what the national average is,” he explains. “Now, we’re seeing 30%-35%. You’re seeing a national EMS shortage. You’re seeing the national paramedic shortage; you’re seeing a national nursing and health care shortage.”
Both the city and the county are considering wage increases for their employees as residents throughout the area cope with inflation and rising housing costs.
During an April 26 budget work session, Asheville staff floated a 4% wage increase for employees hired before Jan. 1, as well as a 2.5% increase for employees hired after that date, with an estimated annual cost of about $3 million. The city’s lowest-paid positions start at $15 per hour, short of the $17.70 hourly living wage rate established earlier this year by Just Economics of WNC, although city leaders emphasize that those employees also receive as much as $15,000 annually in retirement contributions and other benefits.
“We are trying to be competitive,” City Manager Debra Campbell told members of Council April 26. “It’s a battle right now.”
Meanwhile, Buncombe County is reviewing a 4.7% cost-of-living increase for its current employees at an estimated annual cost of about $5.7 million, along with nearly $5 million in raises tied to the county’s recently completed compensation study. Buncombe is also considering adding 61 new positions, representing the largest staff expansion since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s an applicant’s market,” adds Caroline Long, Buncombe County’s lead recruiter. “Since the pandemic, people are wanting to work remotely or are reevaluating their career choices in their lives and thinking about what is really important to them.”