Toronto’s high cost of living leaves jobs open at city hall

The big number

717

the number of city of Toronto jobs in the city’s online staff directory currently listed as being filled on a temporary, or ‘acting,’ basis, as Toronto struggles with high vacancy rates across many divisions.

At this point, I think it’s well-established that Mayor John Tory and Toronto city council are dealing with a major municipal money shortage. The city still faces a remaining year-end budget deficit of $484 million, even after a recent provincial funding commitment. Tory is even planning to name-and-shame Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on property tax notices sent to Toronto homeowners if the federal government doesn’t step up soon.

But what’s less talked about is that the city is dealing with a major shortage of another resource too: people.

It seems like these days few people really want to work at Toronto city hall.

Coun. Gord Perks raised the issue at last week’s meeting of city council, asking pointed questions of Stephen Conforti, city hall’s executive director of financial planning.

“One thing I noticed: across many of our divisions, we saved money — or didn’t spend money — because we were unable to hire all the positions we had approved for those divisions. Is that correct?” Perks asked.

“Yes, there was underspending in certain divisions where they didn’t hire at the pace at which they had assumed as part of the budget,” said Conforti.

Perks pressed Conforti to be more specific. He wanted a ballpark number. Conforti confirmed that vacant positions had resulted in underspending totalling “tens of millions” across many divisions.

So there it is. City hall, much like Elon Musk’s Twitter — where an employee exodus and mass layoffs have left a skeleton crew struggling to keep up with the whims of an eccentric billionaire — has a staffing problem.

As an experiment, I ran a search for the word “acting” on the job titles listed on the staff directories posted on the city’s website. Of more than 8,000 job titles listed, I found 717 jobs currently filled by someone who is temporarily assigned to the position.

There are 61 people, for example, at Toronto Paramedic Services filling jobs on a temporary, or “acting,” basis. Solid Waste Services — the garbage department — has 79. But the parks division beats them all, with 113 people currently listed as “acting” out of a total of about 650 listed positions.

Some of these acting titles can be chalked up to the natural course of things. People go on leave to become parents or treat an illness or climb a mountain in search of cosmic enlightenment, and that requires someone else to cover their job on an acting basis. But the high rates at some divisions, coupled with Conforti’s acknowledgment that the city is significantly underspending on budgeted positions, points to a real problem with the city recruiting and retaining people.

A big part of the problem might simply be about money. The city is currently advertising for dozens of positions offering salaries that simply aren’t enough to cover the high cost of living in the city.

A part-time “heavy duty” cleaner gig, for instance, starts at $24.63 an hour. A full-time garbage truck driver job starts at $30.62 an hour. A part-time position for a (bilingual!) registered nurse in the city’s long-term-care homes starts at $39.92 an hour. A Budget Analyst job starts at $42.09 an hour.

Sounds good, but even at full-time hours, none of these jobs would be enough for a single person to afford a comfortable life in a city where the average one-bedroom is now listing for upwards of $2,500 a month. To safely cover that amount — as online calculators, and, probably, anyone qualified to be a city of Toronto Budget Analyst, could tell you — requires an income in excess of $100,000 a year.

The good news is that Tory and council can tackle this problem on two fronts.

First, the city needs to seriously review whether its wage rates are high enough to attract and retain talented employees. They recently did this for the city planning department — where the staff turnover rate hit 15 per cent this year — and realized the city needed to invest another $4 million to increase pay rates. A similar thing happened when the city faced a critical shortage of lifeguards and swim instructors.

It’s time to do the same compensation review citywide.

Simultaneously, the city’s struggles to fill vacant positions should further emphasize the need to do more on the housing file to create more of what’s been termed “workforce housing” — the kind of housing priced to be available to people working critical jobs like cleaners, garbage truck drivers, nurses and municipal budget analysts.

The urgency should be obvious. Budget bailouts and mayoral promises aren’t going to amount to much if city hall doesn’t have the right people — or enough people — to do the work of building a better city.

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