Just because there's a City job vacancy doesn't mean it gets filled immediately. We explain gapping, and its impact on the budget and city services.
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In a big workforce like the City of Toronto, there’s always going to be some job vacancies. Maybe it’s hard to find people with the right skills, or it could just take time to go through the proper posting process. Regardless, if you assume a City division will be fully staffed all year, it will probably end up with a bigger budget than needed. So when staff and council put together the budget every year, they assume that staff levels will actually be a few per cent lower than what’s on paper. This is called “gapping,” and while a certain level can be sound management, too much of it can disguise real budget problems at the expense of City services.
Sometimes City divisions are asked to cut costs, and one way they can do so is to leave approved positions vacant longer than necessary. Once begun, this practice is difficult to get rid of, much like that balance on your credit card that you can never quite manage to pay off.
It’s easy to see the cost of doing something, but the tricky thing about gapping is that the cost of not doing something is just as real. Does the cost of not delivering services outweigh the savings?
The Cost of Gapping
How much does gapping save—and how much does it cost? It’s not easy to put a dollar figure on the latter; the regular budget documents don’t get that fine-grained. However, in recent years, the impact of gapping has become increasingly difficult to ignore.
The City sets a gapping target rate of 2.1 per cent. That is, with regular turnover and hiring, City divisions should operate with 97.9 per cent of the approved complement. If gapping is significantly more than 2.1 per cent, the division risks not being able to deliver the services it needs to.
Torontoist looked at the 2015 gapping levels for 30 City divisions and agencies with over 200 employees. Of these, only six were below the 2.1 per cent gapping target. Nineteen City divisions and agencies more than doubled the target gapping rate. This includes Court Services, where the 2015 gapping rate was 10 times the targeted rate.
Gapping is not a new phenomenon at the City of Toronto. However, it has gone up dramatically since 2010. As a result, while the City has steadily increased the number of employees it budgets for, the workforce is actually smaller than it was in 2009. The difference is that in 2009 the City had about 840 vacant positions. Today it is short over 2,500.
Meanwhile, Toronto has continued to grow. Every year there is more work to be done, and fewer people to do the work. Being chronically short-staffed has tangible consequences. A few examples:
- A shortage of administrative staff in Fleet Services means that sometimes vendors contracted by the City do not get paid in time.
- 311 has had difficulty finding enough people to handle the high call volume during events like floods and ice storms. They also had to put off upgrading their knowledge base.
- The severely understaffed IT division only managed to finish 15 of 29 capital projects planned for 2013.
From the City’s point of view, gapping also requires staff to take a lot of overtime and postpone planned time off, which lowers morale and leads to burn-out. Paying overtime wages gets expensive. So does having to contract out work because there’s too few City employees to do it.
“Just hire more people” may seem like the logical solution, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. This 2014 staff report details how the City is tackling the problem. Strategies include creating “ongoing” job postings for positions with high turnover; centralizing standardized testing of job candidates; and getting a Twitter account.
However, the hiring process still requires a lot of time and resources. As part of their collective agreement with the City, unionized employees get “first dibs,” so to speak; Human Resources has to go through a process of considering unionized candidates before listing the vacancy externally. And the competition for City jobs is stiff: according to HR, the average external job posting gets hundreds of applications. (One job posting for a Court Services collections officer got 1,103 applications.)
At the end of the day, a human still has to read through all of those applications. Unfortunately, between 2009 and 2013, Human Resources’ recruitment and hiring staff dropped 15 to 20 per cent. Why? Because they had to meet their gapping target, of course…
Want to stay informed? The budget committee’s quarterly variance reports include gapping figures, as well as little blurbs about why each division is over or under budget. (Press
Ctrl+F and search for “staff vacancies.”)
If you have feelings~ about gapping and service levels, you will soon be able to sign up to speak at the budget committee’s public consultations. They run from Jan. 12-14, 2016, and there are meetings across the city, in downtown Toronto, East York, Scarborough, North York, York, and Etobicoke.
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