Juneau looks to new recruitment strategies amid city worker shortage

a Juneau city bus
A masked city bus driver makes his way through downtown on Thursday, July 29, 2021 in Juneau. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

The Juneau Assembly is considering offering sign-on bonuses and enhancing retirement benefits to attract and retain more city workers.

This winter, a driver shortage led to the temporary cancellation of some city bus routes. But the problem goes deeper — more than a quarter of city employees have been on the job for less than a year, as more experienced employees age out of the workforce and younger workers stay for shorter periods of time. 

City Manager Rorie Watt said some positions requiring technical skills have been especially hard to fill.

“Heavy equipment operators are hard to find right now,” he said. “People with commercial drivers licenses, bus drivers, IT workers, programmers.”

Watt outlined three proposals at an Assembly finance committee meeting Wednesday night. The first is to offer sign-on bonuses of up to $40,000 for certain positions. To get that bonus, an employee would have to commit to working at least two to four years, depending on the job.

City leaders also suggested the city contribute to dependent care flexible spending accounts. That’s a pre-tax account that employees can use to pay for childcare.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic working parents and caregivers left the workforce in high numbers and have yet to return to full-time employment,” Watt wrote in a memo to the committee. “In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are still two million fewer women in the workforce than pre-pandemic rates.”

The third proposal, from Finance Director Jeff Rogers, would match retirement contributions made by workers hired since July 2006. Under Alaska state law, those employees – who make up Tier IV of the Public Employee Retirement System – get individual retirement accounts rather than paying into a pension, and they can take their accounts to new jobs after five years. 

Watt said contributing to their accounts could motivate city employees to stay for several years.

“We’re trying to replicate that hook that defined benefits employees have,” he said. “They start to think about job changes and they think, ‘If I stay longer, I’m incentivized.’”

Assembly member Michelle Hale said it could be a local solution to a statewide problem.

“It has felt, at the city level, like we’ve been in a trap of a former Legislature’s making,” she said, referring to the 2005 decision to establish Tier IV. 

The finance committee agreed to move the proposals forward. City leaders will incorporate them into the proposed budget and present them to the full Assembly.

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