Three San Francisco government departments and the local office for a state agency are scrambling to hire staff to keep up with the city’s steady increase in construction projects.
In recent years, several thousand buildings have been put up or substantially renovated throughout the city, leading San Francisco’s Planning Department, Department of Building Inspection and Fire Department along with California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health, to fill positions, add jobs and recruit talent.
Nowhere is busier than the Department of Building Inspection. In the 2012-13 fiscal year, the 12 months through June 30, 2013, the agency issued a record 61,000 permits for projects that ranged from new housing and office developments to plumbing and electrical upgrades. That number jumped to 65,000 in 2013-14 and is expected to hit 80,000 for the current fiscal year.
It is a far cry from how things looked during the economic downturn when construction growth dropped in San Francisco and DBI laid off 30 percent of its staff then.
As the economic turnaround began, the agency started restaffing and that process continues to accelerate. The department has brought on nearly 50 people in the last six months, according to DBI spokesman, William Strawn. The agency plans to hire about 20 more inspectors, engineers, clerks and IT workers between now and the end of June.
Tough Building Codes Fuel Demand for Inspectors
“San Francisco happens to be in one of the world’s highest at-risk seismic zones,” Strawn says. “Our building codes are a whole lot more strict than just about any place else in the world. We keep adding people because the demand for these building projects, especially over the last couple of years, has been pretty intense.”
Part of that uptick stems from the increased number of big multimillion-dollar projects in the city, including massive residential and office towers downtown. There were nearly 60 major projects in the city several years ago, city officials say, and more than 250 today.
Along with prompting a need for more extensive inspections, those large projects are changing San Francisco's skyline.
DBI needs to get permission from several of the city's departments to make staffing changes. Funds to pay for the added positions will come from the fees it charges construction companies.
The increase in building permits also has prompted San Francisco’s fire marshal to ask for more staff to focus on preventing blazes at construction sites. Assistant Deputy Chief Michie Wong says she wants to add 12 people to handle inspections, review fire safety plans that construction crews develop before they build and conduct arson investigations.
The inspectors and investigators who currently work in that part of the Fire Department were the central players in handling the aftermath of two major construction fires in San Francisco this year.
A massive blaze in the city’s Mission Bay neighborhood last March prompted the city to implement stricter safety rules governing construction work. That fire and another at the old Renoir Hotel in the Mid-Market area in August led to citations against contractors.
Several of the new inspectors Wong wants would specifically deal with high-rise developments. Some of the money to pay for those new employees would come from permit fees the Fire Department receives, and some would come from the department’s budget, Wong said. Chief Joanne Hayes-White will consider a request for funding that staff.
Planning Department Also Staffs Up
Meantime, the city agency that helps to shape growth and development in San Francisco recently added dozens of staff members.
The Planning Department has been increasing its workforce incrementally over the past few years, according to Gina Simi, the agency’s spokeswoman. The agency added three dozen positions over the last year and a half and plans to unveil its staffing proposal for the upcoming budget cycle at a Planning Commission meeting on Jan. 21.
The state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health is also actively recruiting inspectors in San Francisco, according to Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Julia Bernstein. The agency is trying to fill a number of vacant positions in the region and throughout the state.
Cal/OSHA announced in late May that it was targeting Bay Area construction sites to make sure they complied with state safety rules. In fact, the agency launched investigations into several of the contractors involved in the Mission Bay and Renoir Hotel fires.
Some of the local staffing discussions for DBI and the Planning and Fire departments will take place at City Hall in the coming months. Mayor Ed Lee's administration and the Board of Supervisors are set to start hammering out a spending plan in March. The Board of Supervisor’s Budget and Finance Committee is expected to initiate hearings then on how much to fund each city department.
The new president of the Board of Supervisors is receptive to the idea of adding staff to handle San Francisco’s construction boom.
“There's a lot of building happening and we certainly need to make sure we have all the resources in place to ensure they're safe,” said Supervisor London Breed, elected last week to lead the board.