S&WB Carrollton (copy)

Advocate photo by Matthew Hinton -- The Sewerage & Water Board's Carrollton water treatment plant.

With hundreds of positions at the Sewerage & Water Board vacant, New Orleans City Councilman Joe Giarrusso is proposing to allow the agency to hire people who live outside the city.

S&WB workers are now required to live in New Orleans under a rule that also covers most City Hall departments. But the agency has long faced difficulties in filling vacant positions, and the utility has partially blamed staffing shortages for its ongoing billing system woes and other problems.

"Everything you’re hearing now about people waiting two hours on hold, or their meters not being read" is exacerbated by staff shortages at the S&WB, Giarrusso said. 

Giarrusso, who introduced the measure at Thursday's City Council meeting, said allowing potential employees to live outside New Orleans wouldn't solve all of the S&WB's hiring problems. However, he said it is important to ensure that the agency has all options available to it as it tries to staff up.

"To the extent we can, we want to give (the S&WB) every tool practical to help its operations," said Giarrusso, who heads the council committee that oversees the utility. "If that means being able to hire people more quickly, we want to make sure that they have all the available options to do so." 

Giarrusso's ordinance would apply only to new hires, not current employees.

The S&WB supports the change, though spokesman Rich Rainey said the utility would still look to city residents first as it considers potential employees.

"We definitely want to target New Orleanians first and foremost, but the extra flexibility will help us fill that (staffing) gap," Rainey said. 

Both Giarrusso and Rainey said the policy change could help with hiring both skilled employees who may not want to move and lower-wage workers who might not be able to find affordable housing in New Orleans. 

The S&WB could not say how many applicants have turned down jobs upon learning they would have to move to the city, and it's impossible to determine how many potential candidates didn't apply because of the restrictions.

Rainey said at least a handful of chemists expressed interest in working for the S&WB's water purification department but did not want to move from their homes in surrounding parishes.

The residency rule is a long-standing policy at the city and the S&WB that traditionally applied to all employees. It was often a focus of racial conflict, with most black leaders and elected officials backing the rule and some white officials and city employees opposing it. 

After Hurricane Katrina, the city suspended the rule for seven years to accommodate a workforce that was scattered across the region as employees tried to rebuild their homes.

After the policy went back into effect, the City Council approved a permanent exemption for police officers, firefighters and Emergency Medical Services employees as the New Orleans Police Department struggled to bolster its depleted ranks — an effort that continues.

Employees at Louis Armstrong International Airport, which is in Kenner but owned by the city of New Orleans, are also excused from having to live within the city limits.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​