Lemondray Jones, a public works supervisor, in his office Aug. 19, 2021. Jones has worked for the city for 29 years. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

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Eighty-five years of experience have walked out of the Kansas City Auditor’s Office in the past year and a half. 

Two out of three audit managers retired, taking a combined lifetime of experience and institutional knowledge with them. The office is hiring, but new employees will take upwards of a year to start their full responsibilities.

“We’re at our lowest staffing numbers in 40 years,” said City Auditor Douglas Jones, who referred to the mass exodus of workers as a “silver tsunami.” 

Departures are not confined to the Auditor’s Office. New city worker retirements are announced at almost every Kansas City, Missouri, City Council meeting. Pandemic fatigue plays a role, but it’s not the only reason. A new incentive program introduced this year, designed to cut down on the total number of city workers and help lower budgeting costs, has fueled a previously unheard of number of retirements in a single year.

City retirements are on the rise

On average, 145 employees have retired from the city every year since 2016. The numbers spiked to 170 in 2019. This year, 209 employees have retired, taking advantage of the new incentive program. 

Workers were eligible for a 25% salary bonus if they retired May 1, July 1 or Aug. 1. City Manager Brian Platt said the dates were spaced out so that “everyone wasn’t running out the door at the same time.” The incentive program is part of a broader strategy to reduce costs and maximize efficient use of resources. 

Some of the increase in departures can likely be attributed to the pandemic. A national survey by the Center for State and Local Government Excellence showed that retirement-eligible employees are speeding up their departure plans in light of COVID-19 — 38% of respondents said employees were intending to retire earlier, the highest percentage since the survey began in 2009.

Retirements can set departments back years. Take the City Auditor’s Office. Training new auditing staff takes 12 to 18 months. When it became clear the office was going to see a mass exodus in a few years, Jones requested funding for additional positions in order to train new staff before retirements hit. But he was only granted one additional position. 

“Without staff, we don’t do audits,” Jones said. 

The office’s workload is dictated by the experience of the staff it has on hand; larger, more intensive audits may have to wait until new employees gain their bearings. 

Around 19% of all city workers have been with the city for more than 20 years; 25% have been hired in the past two years. As more workers retire, the city’s workforce will grow younger — and some departments will be left shorthanded as they train new workers.

Older city employees offer mentorship

Lemondray Jones has worked for the city for 29 years.

He started as a temporary worker at the Kansas City Zoo, where he stayed for six months. Then he moved on to a full-time position with the water department. After four months there, he moved to the Public Works Department, where he’s stayed ever since. 

Now Jones is a general supervisor with the street maintenance division. He gets to the office every morning between 6 and 6:30, where he makes a schedule for the day’s work orders. Then he assigns equipment to employees, who go out and do the tasks they’ve been assigned. An unofficial part of his job brings Jones the most joy — mentoring younger employees. 

“It’s been great teaching employees how to do the work and better themselves,” Jones said. “It’s been very gratifying. … I’ve had the honor to work with a lot of great people who have continued their career with the city, and I feel very prideful when they get promoted and establish their careers.” 

Most of the people he started working with have since retired. Jones hopes to stay with the department for another 10 years, even though he’ll be eligible for retirement next year. 

“I think there’s a lot more I can teach,” he said. “I’d really like to see this division grow a lot more.”

Budgeting for retirements can cause headaches

Mary Jo Emanuele started working for the Auditor’s Office right out of college and never left. Now, with 32 years of serving the city under her belt, she retired in April of 2020. 

In the years before she left, Emanuele began trying to make guides to many of the tasks she’d been in charge of for decades, like editing the office’s public reports. She said some things are harder to teach than others.

“You can’t hire a person to replace you until you’re gone,” she said. “That never made sense to me. You should work with someone to make a seamless transition.”

Mary Jo Emanuele, a recently retired city auditor, at the Kauffman Memorial Garden Aug. 18, 2021. Emanuele worked for the city for 32 years. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Platt said the city doesn’t get enough of a heads-up on incoming retirements to make a mentorship-to-replacement system work. Many retirements are announced only a few weeks before the employee leaves, he said, making it impossible to budget for an additional employee ahead of time. 

“From an HR perspective, we can’t just ask people if they want to retire, because there’s a lot of legal issues with that. Usually there’s a gap period where we have nobody filling that specific role, and we’re trying hard to fill it rapidly after the fact,” Platt said. 

Douglas Jones, the city auditor, said there had been some discussion with the City Council about using COVID-19 relief funding to backfill department positions, but so far that money has been put toward more immediate needs. Of the 209 retirements as part of the incentive program this year, half or fewer will eventually be backfilled, Platt said. 

“It’s an easier, more straightforward way for us to restructure the way we deliver city services,” he said.

The Auditor’s Office has continued to see its staffing decrease year after year. Emanuele worries that the trend will only continue as more people retire. 

“When there’s less money, people think we don’t need auditors,” Emanuele said. “You can’t always quantify the value of auditors.”

KC worker retirements are part of a national trend

A 2020 survey showed that nationally, 41% of state and local government workers cited retirement as their reason for leaving their jobs. The same survey in 2021 showed a startling jump: 51% of workers cited retirement as the reason for leaving. 

In the survey, 52% of city government employers said they see the largest wave of retirements happening in the next few years, as more and more of the baby boomer generation leaves the workforce. Only 22% said the bulk of retirements had already passed, or that it wasn’t an issue to begin with. 

Retirements of baby boomers accelerated throughout 2020 compared to previous years, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. The trend was more pronounced in workers with less education. 

Hiring new workers isn’t an easy task. Public sector jobs often pay less than their private counterparts, an issue that arises often in Kansas City. 

The office of Lemondray Jones, a public works supervisor, Aug. 19, 2021. Jones arrives in the office around 6 a.m. every day, where he makes a schedule for the day. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

“I think that there is a gap between the wages that cities offer in the public sector and what options may be available on the private side, and that goes from somebody who is a trash collector all the way up to positions that require advanced degrees, like attorneys and planners,” Platt said. 

Legislation introduced by Kansas CIty Mayor Quinton Lucas aims to raise the minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour. Platt said the city is also undergoing internal union negotiations to work on increasing salaries. 

“It’s a challenging time to hire people,” he said, referencing the ongoing pandemic. “Salary is a big component, but a lot of external social factors play a role as well.”

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.