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The main Sewerage and Water Board plant building is seen in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017.

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON

The New Orleans Civil Service Commission on Monday approved pay raises for hundreds of Sewerage & Water Board positions — a move officials at the beleaguered agency have said is necessary to help them recruit and retain workers.

The raises cover about 40 job titles in operations, maintenance and other areas where staffing has become a critical challenge, with some jobs seeing an increase of 12 percent to 15 percent.

Overall, about 300 positions will see an increase in pay under the plan. It was not clear how many of those positions are now vacant. 

Staffing has been a critical problem at the S&WB for years, and officials have said the lack of workers at the utility may have been at least partially to blame for the Aug. 5 flooding that prompted a public outcry and led to a shakeup in the agency's management.

"We have lots of critical positions, obviously, but these are the ones that keep the plant running," said Terrance Ginn, a member of the six-person interim management team that has overseen the S&WB since shortly after the flooding.

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"This is a multi-phase approach," Ginn said. "This is the first part because these are the most critical positions that we want to address first. We would like to come back to the commission soon — very soon — to address the other positions as well."

The pay raises are expected to cost about $3 million a year, which Ginn said will be found in the S&WB's existing budget.

The positions getting higher pay include steam plant engineers, pumping and power operators, various types of maintenance positions and water purification staffers.

The raises are designed to bring pay at the S&WB more in line with other public and private utilities.

Right now, about 300 of the 1,400 positions at the agency are empty. Ginn said that while it was able to hire 300 workers last year, 175 employees left the utility, many citing low pay as a reason.

The commission approved the raises 3-0. The City Council must still approve the plan before it goes into effect.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​