Omaha can’t hire enough workers to fix city streets, so the Public Works Department came back to the City Council on Tuesday seeking more help from private contractors.
Months of frustration boiled over during the meeting about a lack of progress in hiring and retaining Public Works employees to fix and plow streets.
The council ultimately approved a $1.1 million contract with Iowa-based Midwest Coatings Co. to seal 108 lane miles of Omaha streets by Nov. 23.
But before the 6-1 vote, the council spent about an hour criticizing the department for its staffing woes and grilling Assistant Public Works Director Todd Pfitzer about what’s being done to address them.
Pfitzer said one of the biggest problems facing Public Works is a demand for drivers with a commercial driver’s license, or CDL. The city trains many drivers, only to see them hired away, he said.
Council President Chris Jerram and council members Rich Pahls and Vinny Palermo, frequent critics of Public Works, said they understand it’s hard to hire in Omaha.
But several expressed exasperation that the city’s street maintenance division is understaffed by about 25 people, based on the numbers cited by Pahls on Tuesday.
“We’re missing something,” Palermo said. “Where have these employees gone?”
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
In an interview later in the day, Mayor Jean Stothert said the council will get some answers next Tuesday from a labor study of street maintenance employees requested by the council.
Stothert said the council will learn that problems in street maintenance staffing have more to do with pay, hours and competing job opportunities than poor management or recruitment.
The city’s Human Resources Department surveyed employees in the streets division. It’s also doing a citywide salary survey that Stothert said should help the city better compete for talent.
Kelcy Johnson, vice president of Local 251, the union that represents street maintenance workers, suggested that the council and city need to dig deeper.
She and Local 251 President Tony Burkhalter said employees are leaving street maintenance for other departments because of “a manager” they dislike. The union leaders did not name the person.
Johnson told the council that a dozen streets employees have put in for a transfer to other parts of Public Works or other city departments.
“There is a management issue in street maintenance,” she said. “It’s a real problem.”
Stothert said: “There is no management problem in the Public Works Department.” The problem, she said, is the same labor shortage facing businesses.
Regardless of staffing problems, the city needs to seal its streets to avoid even more potholes showing up next spring, Pfitzer said.
He said the city spent so much time patching potholes in 2018-19 that the crews got behind in sealing cracks in city streets, which it usually does by summer.
Council members Aimee Melton and Brinker Harding said they want to address concerns about street maintenance, too, but said the city can’t wait to seal the cracks.
Ultimately, Pahls, Gray and Palermo agreed, as did Councilman Pete Festersen.
Jerram, the only no vote on the contract, suggested that the council could exert its independent authority to investigate the staffing problems if the city doesn’t make significant progress in hiring and retaining staff.
Gray agreed and said he wouldn’t approve hiring another private contractor for street maintenance until the department addresses its problems.
Stothert said after the meeting that she expects the labor survey to address council members’ questions.
“The positions are posted, the ones we have open,” she said. “It’s not that we’re not trying to fill them.”