Oakland City Hall. Credit: Amir Aziz

Some of Oakland’s most important departments are seriously understaffed, and it’s unlikely they’re going to get immediate relief, even with a mayor-created “strike force” dedicated to filling some city jobs. 

According to a report shared yesterday with the City Council’s Finance and Management Committee, the city has an overall vacancy rate of almost 19%. That means of the roughly 5,000 jobs the city has budgeted for, 944 are vacant. But the rate is significantly higher in critical departments that handle violence prevention, transportation, and economic growth. 

Ian Appleyard, Oakland’s Human Resources Director, told the council committee on Tuesday that Oakland isn’t alone in this problem. According to the report, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Richmond’s job vacancy rates are all between 17% and 19%. The worst regional outlier is Vallejo—a much smaller city—that as of December 2022 had over one-quarter of its city jobs unfilled. 

Oakland’s vacancy problem is not new. Last December’s staffing report showed similar numbers. Oakland added 277 positions during the mid-cycle budget of 2022-2023. This was the largest increase in over 15 years, and contributed to the city’s high vacancy rate, according to the more recent memo. 

Appleyard said the city has an unusually high number of temporary workers and wants to employ many of them in a full-time capacity. He added that Oakland beefed up its HR department to expedite hiring in other branches. Between last December and May 2023, Oakland increased the number of workers doing recruitment to 27 from 19. 

Appleyard’s report cites data from NeoGov, an HR management firm, which says applications for public sector jobs in general declined 56% from 2021 to 2022. The unemployment rate in the Oakland-Hayward-Fremont region was 3.1% in March 2023—lower than the state rate—which means there are relatively few candidates seeking jobs in the East Bay, and competition for talent is intense. Appleyard emphasized that this trend is unlikely to relent any time soon.  

“It’s very significant how few people are applying and looking for work,” he said.

This is bad news for branches of Oakland’s government that are in desperate need of more personnel. 

Violence prevention, economic development, transportation, and the city administration are major departments with lots of empty positions

The department with the worst vacancy rate is Violence Prevention, which was created in 2017 to address the root causes of violence. According to the staffing report, Violence Prevention has 29 unfilled positions out of 48 budgeted, giving it a vacancy rate of almost 60%. DVP also relies heavily on contracts with community-based organizations to do much of its frontline work, including violence intervention, life coaching, and neighborhood events. Due to recent budget cuts, some of these groups may have to lay off personnel.

The Police Commission and City Auditor both reported high vacancy rates (nearly 58% and 36.3%, respectively) but they are small agencies compared to other city departments. The Police Commission is experiencing a bitter power struggle, which may hamper its ability to attract prospective candidates.   

Economic and Workforce Development, which focuses on Oakland’s economy, is budgeted for roughly 66 positions but about one-third are unfilled. The city’s two-year budget, which was approved by the council on Monday, envisions this department merging with Planning and Building (which has a vacancy rate of 27.7%). Thao, who is eager to attract new businesses and retain existing ones, is organizing a “vacancy strike force”to prioritize hiring in several revenue-generating departments, which includes Planning and Building, which earns money by charging fees to developers and contractors seeking construction permits.    

Earlier this year, Thao froze hiring in the City Administrator’s Office, which recently reported a 33.6% vacancy rate. The administrator oversees day-to-day operations across Oakland’s departments and carries out directives from the City Council. The new administrator, Jestin Johnson, will be responsible for implementing the mergers of several critical departments next year, which may be more challenging with a reduced workforce.  

The Department of Transportation has a vacancy rate of almost 33%, with approximately 138 roles unfilled. Traffic safety is a priority for the mayor and all councilmembers this year, and the new budget invests over $10 million in road improvements. Without adequate staffing, it’s unclear how quickly the department can complete infrastructure projects like road diets and roundabouts that residents request.

The Oakland Police Department has the lowest vacancy rate—6.79%—outside of City Council and the Clerk’s Office. It also has the greatest number of budgeted positions of any department, with over 1,311. The next biggest department, Oakland Fire Department, has over 767 budgeted positions, but a vacancy rate of 20.19%. OFD received a federal grant earlier this year to maintain staffing levels for several years.  Councilmember Janani Ramachandran unsuccessfully lobbied for the new budget to include a grant writer for OPD to secure more external funding. Compared to other departments, OPD has a high attrition rate, the pace at which current employees retire, quit, or leave the city for other reasons.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas asked staff to include information in future reports about high-level recruitments and hires, including department director positions.

“I am particularly interested in our parks and recreation department,” Bas said. Under the city’s 2023-2025 budget, Parks, Recreation, and Youth Development will absorb part of the Human Services Department to become an entirely new department within the city. The current interim director of parks and recreation is retiring and it’s not immediately clear who will oversee the new department.

Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said the city recently approved funding to pay for laptops that can be brought to job fairs so prospective candidates can apply on the spot. The budget will add $10,900 for laptops at job fairs, and council has requested an update on how to create a pipeline that feeds students at local schools and colleges into city jobs.

She noted that Oakland officials are also trying to break down other unnecessary barriers to hiring.

“There’s been a history of excluding people for prior and off-the-job cannabis use,” Kaplan said, adding that she hears this practice is continuing in Oakland even though the city officially forbids it. “It’s causing us to lose applicants for engaging in a lawful activity, which seems like not a good reason to not have our streets getting paved.”

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.