New Orleans upholds residency rules for juvenile jail workers

The Juvenile Justice Intervention Center is budgeted for 104 positions, of which 48 are currently vacant

By Ben Myers
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — Mayor LaToya Cantrell's push to lift residency requirements for juvenile detention workers has been shelved after a City Council committee on Tuesday deferred a vote on the measure.

The committee action followed Cantrell's recent failed attempt to lift the residency requirement by fiat, which council members stymied by terminating the COVID-19 emergency declaration the mayor invoked in her executive order.

With out-of-city hiring out of the question, at least for now, the administration will have to find other ways to attract workers to a troubled and understaffed city agency whose director was put on leave without explanation less than a month ago.

The Juvenile Justice Intervention Center is budgeted for 104 positions, of which 48 are currently vacant, according to city officials who spoke at the hearing Tuesday. That is a bit of an improvement from two months ago, when there were 54 vacancies.

Despite the modest gain, the interim director of the juvenile jail, Dichelle Williams, told council members the residency requirement is an insurmountable burden when competing in a tight labor market with agencies in other parishes that don't restrict where employees can live.

"The applicant pool is extremely, extremely small," Williams said. "We are desperately looking for candidates."

High housing costs an issue

One way the residency requirement inhibits hiring is that it tethers workers to a city housing market with few options for workers who start at an annual salary of $36,000, Williams said. Even when seemingly qualified applicants want to work in New Orleans, they are often eliminated after background checks, drug scans and psychological evaluations, she added.

But Williams failed to convince City Council members Helena Moreno, JP Morrell and Oliver Thomas, who voted to indefinitely defer the exemption. They noted that despite similar exemptions for the New Orleans Police Department and Emergency Medical Services, those agencies continue to suffer from staffing issues.

Morrell argued that instead of letting workers live out of town, the administration ought to budget for higher pay.

But Williams said the juvenile jail's staffing crisis needs an immediate response, even if an exemption to the residency rule is only temporary and still prioritizes city residents over others.

The only way to meet the state's minimum staff-to-inmate ratio is with 12 and 15-hour shifts, Williams said, and existing staff members are exhausted.

Williams and other administration officials found a sympathetic audience in Council members Freddie King and Eugene Green.

"I'm not in the business of playing politics with our kids. I'm not accusing anyone of doing that," King said. "You don't need to live in the parish to care for children. You have to relate to the children. You have to love the children."

King's motion to refer the exemption for a full council vote failed to get a second. Green, who sponsored the ordinance, also spoke strongly in favor of the exemption, but was not eligible to vote because he is not on the Criminal Justice Committee.

Council member Lesli Harris, who is on the committee, missed the meeting while on her honeymoon. Harris is a frequent administration critic, but she has not publicly voiced a position on the domicile exemption. Council member Joseph Giarrusso, who is not on the committee, questioned the need for the exemption but said he is undecided.

Applicants not showing up

The jail usually needs at least four applicants to fill one vacancy, meaning it needs to attract about 200 applicants to fill the current vacancies, Williams said. Recent job fairs for the juvenile jail have attracted just a handful of people.

But Moreno noted that a Civil Service registry has more than 110 qualified applicants, which Moreno said ought to be enough to put a larger dent in the vacancy rate.

"You really can't say there's not enough qualified people in this city. I mean, I get what you're saying that you want the pool to be bigger, but maybe a better approach would be, how do we work through this list of 110 qualified applicants faster," Moreno said.

But the registry does not realistically reflect the candidate pool, according to Williams and other administration officials. In addition to those weeded out through pre-hiring screening, other candidates — attracted by the position title, "juvenile detention counselor" — voluntarily withdraw when they recognize the job is as much like a correctional officer in an adult jail as it is like a therapist, said Emily Wolff, director of the Office of Youth and Families.

"That kind of description, folks are attracted to it initially, and then they learn that it's a detention facility," Wolf said.

Of the 869 juvenile detention applicants deemed qualified over the last three years, fewer than 10% have been hired, according to Civil Service. The vast majority — 80% — have been removed from the registry after a three-year expiration period. Williams said applicants on the registry are called for every opening.

"They're not showing up," she said.


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