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Staffing shortages hurt Delaware's small cities

Milton Pratt
Delaware Public Media

Staffing shortages in Delaware’s city governments manifest as they compete with private businesses.


The City of Milford is facing high vacancy rates across all its departments.


Only half of the jobs in the department of Public Works are filled right now, meaning it’ll take longer to repair downed power lines, collect the city's garbage or send out utility bills.


Sara Pletcher is the economic development administrator for the city. She says the nationwide worker shortage from the pandemic has been a major factor, but also having to offer wages competitive with companies moving into the state.


“Working at Amazon or in a warehouse somewhere is certainly more the competition that we’re competing against to and there’s only so many people to go around and if the more businesses come to Delaware — Delaware is growing economically across the state — and so yes, they are creating another avenue for people to work and taking away from our staffing pool,” Pletcher said.


That competition has forced the city to raise wages for many positions they’re hiring for, as well as offer sign-on and retention bonuses to new and current employees.


And similar staffing issues face other small towns in Delaware, such as Seaford, which are also re-evaluating their pay scales to compete with large businesses.


Charles Anderson is the city manager for Seaford. He says while not as bad as Milford, Seaford is also short on staff in a few of their departments.


“And our budget was set two months ago, traditionally it can be hard to change salaries once that’s set,” Anderson said.


Anderson says the city council has had to make those changes to be able to attract more workers with higher wages and more bonuses.


He says in Seaford specifically, Amazon is going to become a big competitor with the city very soon — as the company is finishing up construction on a new warehouse in the city, and will begin seeking workers to fill those spots with more cash than a city government can often match.


This is happening as federal funds are coming in for cities to make desperately needed upgrades and repairs.


“So when you start taking staff off of other departments that might be working on these long term plans just to make sure trash is getting picked up every day — then they have to go back and do their actual job at some point too,” Pletcher said. “So it’s gonna delay us in the long run, yes.”


Pletcher says some of the federal money coming in from the American Rescue Plan can also be used towards hiring bonuses, which will help attract more people.


Right now, the city is offering huge sign-on bonuses for new electrical workers and monthly retention bonuses for the ones already on staff.


She says those are set to last for six months right now, which is how long she hopes this staff shortage will last.


For now, Pletcher asks Milford residents to be kind to city staff as they manage to keep everything running. If your garbage isn’t taken out when it usually is, take some time before calling the city. 


And she encourages everyone to utilize online resources to reduce the burden on city staff, such as signing up for online utility billing instead of receiving your bill in the mail.


Roman Battaglia is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Roman Battaglia grew up in Portland, Ore, and now reports for Delaware Public Media as a Report For America corps member. He focuses on politics, elections and legislation activity at the local, county and state levels.
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