San Francisco Spends Millions Outsourcing Geotechnical Work Critical to Public Safety


Yet another example of wasteful outsourcing that costs more for less


Over the past 3 years the City has spent $5,409,989 outsourcing critical geotechnical engineering work to outside firms for San Francisco’s Department of Public Works, while employing only 2 Geotechnical Engineers.

Local 21 member and Geotechnical Engineer Kit Tung provided a memo for bargaining that outlines the outsourcing of these Geotechnical Engineering jobs. Hourly costs for these contractors range from $232 to $240, while a city worker’s wages and benefits total $208.30 for the same work.

Mr. Tung points out another key difference between public servants and contractors, “Contractors have to serve both their for-profit companies and their client (the City). Public workers just focus on serving the residents of San Francisco.”

Geotechnical engineering is a highly specialized field that is concerned with what happens below ground, as opposed to engineers who work on structures above ground. Geotechnical Engineers are needed in the planning and design phase, and also for emergencies.  The work, says Tung, is critical to the residents of San Francisco because it’s necessary for public safety.  When structures are being planned, or modifications are being made, Tung and his supervisor, Reza Baradaran, determine things like seismic risk, and what kinds of foundational support structures are needed based on the ground composition. The geotechnical team also gets emergency calls, such as to assess ground stability and the potential for landslides stemming from the recent rain.

Despite having enough work for millions of dollars of contractor hours, the City is only hiring for one additional Geotechnical Engineer. And the recruitment process is difficult for a number of reasons. “The salary is not competitive with the private market, and we also need Geotechnical Engineers who have a lot of local experience with the challenging San Francisco geology,” says Tung. And by contracting work the out, the City is not cultivating learning and knowledge about San Francisco geology among city workers. “When the job ends, the knowledge gained from the project leaves with the contractors,” Tung says.

Unlike contractors, who have to be called to schedule a future appointment during an emergency, or must conduct complete subsurface studies prior to making determinations about the geology, Tung and his teammate are on hand to respond quickly and can build on subsurface information they already have. With more permanent civil service Geotechnical Engineers, projects could be handled more quickly and economically.

The serious understaffing of Geotechnical Engineers in favor of rich outside contracts is just one example of how outsourcing works in San Francisco. These expensive contracts affect Local 21 members across the City, in many job classes.

The use of costly contractors to carry out city work has risen dramatically, impacting the City budget, the quality of the services provided, our jobs, our development as workers, and our promotional opportunities. The City encumbered a staggering $3.583 billion in FY 2017-18, which is equivalent to 34.6% of the total San Francisco budget. The City has committed a total of $14.3 billion to outsourcing since FY 2012-13 – including over $3 billion for each of the past three-years. The City is spending this money on private companies instead of doing its part to build a stable middle class in San Francisco by providing good civil service jobs.

Local 21 members are taking action. At the bargaining table, proposals have been passed that would help curb this practice, but they have been rejected by the City. Large rallies and public actions by members are putting pressure on the City to work with us on our key bargaining issues, including the overreliance on outsourcing. But more pressure is needed. Stay tuned for more actions coming up in April!