Nathan Richards misses the work. Every time he hears a siren or sees a firetruck speed by, he’s reminded that chapter of his life has ended.
He’d started thinking about retiring before the pandemic.
“If I had a newer body, this kid that still lives in this old body would do the work,” said Richards, 67. “Sometimes my knees and ankles hurt.”
Firefighting is physically demanding work, but Richards did it for 47 years. Firefighters also meet a lot of people in the course of their work, which brings new risk during a pandemic.
Richards knew that older people have a harder time recovering from a COVID-19 infection, and that tipped the scales for him.
When the city offered a voluntary separation program, he took it.
Richards is one of 87 city employees who have opted to quit or retire in the past month. As a group, they averaged more than 17 years of service each.
In other words, about 1,500 years of experience left City Hall this month, yet another cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Each employee received 20 weeks of pay and up to 480 hours of paid leave as part of the exit package. City Manager Todd Hileman told council members this week that the exodus will cost the city $1.4 million this year but is expected to save more than $9 million next year.
Many different city departments are watching experienced employees walk out the door — from administrators and analysts to heavy equipment operators and utility workers. Police Lt. Robert Summers, for example, left after 47 years on the force. He came to work April 15, 1973, when Richard Nixon was president and singer Tony Orlando first inspired people to tie yellow ribbons around oak trees.
Between the hiring freeze and the separation program, about 211 positions are currently vacant, which is helping the city save money. Some of those positions will be refilled.
Hileman told council members that a small committee is reviewing each position to make that rehiring decision.
For example, the city’s longtime emergency manager, Michael Penaluna, also retired at the end of June. Penaluna oversaw the city’s preparedness for big weather and other disasters. His last day on the job, he sent out a weather advisory — a heads-up for the storm that destroyed two homes in the Lantana area south of Denton.
The city has already announced that firefighter Brad Lahart will fill the emergency manager post.
In addition to evaluating each position, Hileman said he is encouraging department heads to work together in thinking about how jobs get done, too. He told council members that the tendency for departments to “silo” their work and employees has proved expensive for the city.
The cost-cutting steps mean the city has avoided layoffs and adding its own count to the local unemployment rolls, which are hovering above 12%.
Even so, about 100 of those good-paying jobs probably won’t return to the city’s payroll next year — yet another price to pay from the pandemic.