City Council mulls ‘day laborer’ fix to Baltimore’s workforce woes

Published 3/22/2023 6:00 p.m. EDT, Updated 3/22/2023 6:42 p.m. EDT

The exterior of Baltimore City Hall as seen on Monday, Feb. 13.

Baltimore’s public works department last week reported nearly 700 vacant positions across the sprawling bureaucracy overseeing trash removal and the local water system. The city’s Department of Transportation is reporting a similarly stark shortage: over 300 open jobs, including significant needs for crossing guards and commercially licensed drivers.

At the same time, many people in Baltimore are living homeless or searching for work, noted Councilman Mark Conway at a Wednesday hearing, leaving “a very obvious connection that needs to be made.”

That gap prompted the North Baltimore councilman’s idea for a “day laborer” program to help link residents with flexible work. Like other kinds of work in the gig economy, such a program could help address city agencies’ severe staffing needs while connecting people with jobs that could last as long as a day, a week or a month, Conway said.

Baltimore is testing out numerous avenues to address severe staffing shortages, which have been exacerbated since the start of the pandemic. A community cleaning program aimed at filling gaps in waste services launched earlier this year, and just last week the city began offering $10,000 bonuses to hire and retain qualified CDL drivers.

But agency leaders expressed some skepticism about a day laborer program on Wednesday, citing the challenges of processing and paying short-term employees and questioning whether the approach would address the root of the problem: shortages in positions that often require extensive training or licensing. Two labor unions representing city employees also came out against the idea Wednesday, raising concerns that putting resources into day laborers will cut into wages for full-time employees.

MacKenzie Garvin, interim director for the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development, said her office is open to Conway’s idea but stressed the importance of designing a program that provides supports and resources to the workers involved while helping to put them on sustainable long-term career paths. Garvin noted her office is currently managing a separate transitional employment program, funded by federal pandemic aid, to help connect residents with work and social services.

Department of Human Resources Director Quinton Herbert similarly said his office is “always open to hiring people” but raised concerns about how the city will process payments, tax forms and other important documents for such short-term employees.

The heart of the worker problem in Baltimore’s agencies is not for the kinds of jobs that can be easily filled with short-term contract workers, Herbert added. Across operational agencies, vacancies for “unskilled” workers account for only a few dozen positions, he said, though he noted that figure doesn’t account for solid waste openings in the Department of Public Works.

The spread of COVID-19 severely depleted the workforce in Baltimore’s public works department, and the agency is still struggling to fill its ranks. Its hundreds of open positions amount to close to a 25% vacancy rate, a primary reason for the agency’s curtailed recycling services that have been a source of continued frustration for many City Council members. A ten-year solid waste plan issued by the Department of Public Works last month includes recommendations for bringing on day laborers to help with some of its struggling services.

Antoinette Ryan Johnson, president of the City Union of Baltimore Local 800, which is slated to begin contract renegotiations with the city next week, worried about how the proposed program might affect pay for current full-time employees, who are already struggling to make ends meet with the rising costs of inflation. Dorothy Bryant of AFSCME, Local 44 also expressed concern about the benefits a day laborer program would provide to workers.

“With day laborers, you hire them for one day, they will eat for that day,” said Bryant. “But if you hire them as permanent employees, they will eat for the rest of their lives.”

Conway said Baltimore is managing a vacancy rate of nearly 30% across all of its agencies. Bringing on day laborers may not be the solution, the councilman said.

But given the magnitude of the problem, “I think we have to ask the question,” he said.

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