Lowell’s salary structure needs urban renewal

It seems every employer – private and public – has struggled to fill positions in this COVID pandemic environment.

The number of Americans quitting their jobs in the hope of finding something better continues to rise, breaking records every month.

So it should come as no surprise that hub towns like Lowell have experienced the same problem, a fact discussed at last Tuesday’s city council meeting.

In Lowell’s case, the inability to hire and retain employees predates this pandemic, which only made a bad situation worse.

According to a report prepared by Chief Financial Officer Conor Baldwin, there are 82 vacancies on the municipal side of government; it does not include job postings within the school department, which has its own staffing issues.

While agreeing with Councilman Erik Gitschier on the need to conduct a salary study aligned with municipal positions, manager Eileen Donoghue said she already knew what that review would reveal.

“I think in a lot of cases we’re not competitive, so that’s probably something that really needs to be done,” Donoghue said.

The need for increased compensation in certain key categories has been evident for some time, as a wave of high profile defections a few years ago made clear.

Over the span of several months in 2018 and 2019, Assessor Karen Golden and Senior Code Enforcement Officer Dave Ouellette bolted to Dracut, Building Commissioner Shaun Shanahan left to assume the same title in Chelmsford , Auditor Bryan Perry went to Wilmington, Chief Electoral Officer Eda Matchak was wooed by Lynn, and Solid Waste/Recycling Coordinator Gunther Wellenstein took over the same duties in Haverhill.

Ironically, in almost every case, these people left demanding jobs in the state’s fifth-largest city for smaller communities, which meant lighter workloads and higher salaries.

“I’m worried because we’re losing key people,” then-mayor Bill Samaras said. “At some point we will have to review our salary structures.”

Apparently, the wake-up call that should have sounded with these high profile departures – professionals with years of institutional knowledge that cannot be replaced – did not move the meter on the need to offer competitive salaries.

Municipal officials insist that this lack of staff has not yet affected the level of municipal services.

But the burden it places on others in certain departments cannot be ignored or supported.

Baldwin’s report said half of the positions in the city clerk’s office remain vacant, with three chief clerk positions unfilled.

This prompted Councilwoman Rita Mercier to suggest that Baldwin take over as interim manager if outgoing manager Donoghue leaves before his successor is selected.

In the last two searches for managers, City Clerk Michael Geary has assumed this role, which does not seem feasible in the current circumstances.

But more importantly, the clerk’s office is the instrument of city government, and any breakdown in that function could have serious repercussions.

Some councilors have initiated stopgap measures to address staffing shortages.

Councilman Corey Robinson even suggested implementing a temporary hiring freeze until department heads complete hiring and onboarding training, an idea that city attorney Christine O ‘Connor declared in conflict with Lowell’s Plan E form of government.

A salary review will certainly reveal the city’s lack of competitive salaries and the resources needed to close that gap.