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Dissatisfied Employee

Disinfected Agency Rates Stagnant After Clean-up

SFPUC: Waning Employee Satisfaction under Dennis Herrera

• • • • • • • Mardh 21, 2024 • • • • • • •

Derek Kerr
Dr. Derek Kerr

Two years into Dennis Herrera’s tenure atop the SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), the 2023 “Employee Voice Survey” denotes stagnation rather than recovery

Former City Attorney Dennis Herrera was appointed General Manager of the SFPUC in November 2021. According to Transparent California, Herrera then received $406,120 in salary plus $100,854 in benefits. (This January, the SFPUC Commissioners voted to raise his salary). Strange it was that a career lawyer was chosen to manage the City’s Water, Power and Sewer agency. The Westside Observer characterized the machinations behind the process as “The Fix is In.”

High Expectations

Someone had to straighten the ethical and legal tangles of corruption left by Harlan Kelly, Jr. At the time, Herrera boasted ofputting the City’s top watchdog at the head of the PUC.” Never mind that watchdog Herrera slumbered until the FBI’s probe revealed a scandal. And, never mind the conflict of interests: former City Attorney Herrera was now running the SFPUC while the City Attorney’s Office was investigating SFPUC corruption. One important capability that Herrera brought was for the takeover of PG&E’s infrastructure to establish a public power system. (This agenda seemingly evolved from groundbreaking investigations by Tim Redmond and Bruce Brugmann at the Bay Guardian.)


Although the 2021 surveyors wrote that they would analyze 2,701 employee comments, SFPUC insisted there were “no records” of that analysis. Therefore, we don’t have a baseline for measuring changes in morale between 2021 and 2023.”

Surely, Herrera’s leadership would rejuvenate the agency and boost employee morale. Per his LinkedIn profile, Herrera touts “Achieving high levels of stakeholder satisfaction” among his skills. Employees are key stakeholders. But, their job satisfaction has waned under Herrera.

Employee Satisfaction Surveys

Commendably, the SFPUC monitors worker morale and concerns via Employee Satisfaction (Voice) Surveys conducted by outside survey firms.

The Westside Observer obtained copies of the 2021 and 2023 surveys via public records requests.

The 2021 Employee Satisfaction Survey was conducted in March — before Herrera arrived. Low satisfaction ratings were expected due to the stress from an FBI corruption investigation, COVID constraints, and friction from the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion movement. However, the employee participation rate was healthy at 62% (1377 of 2237 employees). Moreover, the 2021 survey showed marked improvements in employee engagement when compared to the 2018 survey. Overall, favorability scores increased by a significant 5.8%. The survey team considered “a 2-3% change in favorability to be meaningful.” Importantly, none of the responses to 36 comparable survey questions showed a decline in satisfaction when compared to the dismal 2018 survey results.

So, 2021 was a good year.

By late 2023, Herrera’s team had settled in. The disruptions from the FBI probe and COVID had abated. Employee satisfaction should have improved. It didn’t.

Two years into Dennis Herrera’s tenure atop the SF Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), the 2023 “Employee Voice Survey” denotes stagnation rather than recovery. Ominously, employee participation in the October/November 2023 satisfaction survey plunged to an anemic 47% (1039 of 2231 employees). Moreover, employees reported modest but widespread slumps in satisfaction.

Overall, the satisfaction ratings waned from 60.6% in 2021 to 59% in 2023 - a 1% drop. That’s below the meaningful benchmark of 2-3% — however, 19 of the 42 survey questions generated ratings that fell by 2% or more. The most significant drops were related to workplace safety, job flexibility, benefits, and wages. Meanwhile, only five questions generated significantly improved ratings. Foremost among these was; “The SFPUC Executive Team (General Manager and Direct Reports) demonstrate integrity.” 59% of employees responded favorably, versus 53% in 2021. As for trust in leadership, 54% of employees gave positive responses. Not great, considering that the remaining 46% of employees are presumably untrusting. However, trust did improve over the 2021 rating of 51%. The ratings for the other 18 questions showed minimal changes.

Stagnation Portends a Decline

The collapse in employee survey participation, from 62% in 2021 to 47% in 2023, implies apathy or mistrust. Either way, that’s disengagement.

Merely 32% of respondents thought the survey would lead to positive change versus 38% in 2021. And just 30% responded favorably to; “When the SFPUC makes changes, I understand why,” versus 35% in 2021. In other words, most employees don’t know what’s going on. Just 43% agreed that the “Executive Team…value people as their most important resource” – unchanged since 2021. Instead of a boost in SFPUC worker satisfaction under Herrera, we see mostly stagnation edging toward decline.

Why Hasn’t Morale Improved?

SFPUC sources confide that there are still problems with favoritism and unfair perks for managers. The Westside Observer previously covered how the SFPUC subsidizes parking costs for its most highly paid employees. Because they also get telecommuting privileges, SFPUC managers barely use their parking slots three days a week. But telecommuting didn’t apply when several executives were sent on all-expenses-paid trips to London to discuss insurance matters. Then there’s the baffling surge in “Strategy” and/or “Innovation” offices, prompting skeptical employees to share this parody SFPUC Org Chart:

Spoof Organizational Chart

Though cheeky, this critique of management decisions shows that some workers are engaged stakeholders. Engagement can be dissent - not just going along.

What Matters Most

Again, why hasn’t morale improved? The survey indirectly addressed this question by asking employees four open-ended questions about making the SFPUC “a better place to work.” We could only obtain this qualitative portion for the 2023 survey. Although the 2021 surveyors wrote that they would analyze 2,701 employee comments, SFPUC insisted there were “no records” of that analysis. Therefore, we don’t have a baseline for measuring changes in morale between 2021 and 2023.

In 2023, the surveyors distilled 10 top themes from 2,624 employee comments. “These are the issues that matter the most to SFPUC employees in terms of where they would like to see improvement and change,” they asserted. The surveyors “analyzed the overall sentiment of each theme…to identify the themes that skewed the most positive and most negative.” The outcome was troubling: “The overall sentiment in this (portion of) the survey is: 51% negative, 10% mixed, and 39% positive”!

Clues to understanding the 51% negative sentiment appear in the section titled, “What one thing would you like the SFPUC to stop doing to make it a better place to work?” Under “Ethics and Fairness,” the surveyors noted, “Employees emphasized the need to eliminate nepotism and favoritism in the hiring and promotion process, instead advocating for a greater focus on merit and qualifications.” Under “Management,” we read; “Employees want the SFPUC to value their experience and knowledge by giving them more opportunities for management roles, rather than hiring and promoting external hires who are unfamiliar with the organizational challenges.” Under “Staffing,” workers urged reducing the time to hire new employees to reduce the workloads for existing employees. They also wanted to replace temporary staff with permanent civil service positions.

The Future of SFPUC

Because the survey responses indicated lessened or fixed satisfaction, we contacted SFPU for comments on the survey data and on how the agency would address the survey findings. Press Secretary Nancy Crowley responded, in part, “…your initial statement – “There appears to be a decline in employee satisfaction compared to the 2021 survey results.” – is an inaccurate generalization…The largest increases in employee satisfaction over the last two years were in trust in leadership, the integrity of the SFPUC Executive Team, and team dynamics.(She cited several other areas of slight improvement which fell below the 2% benchmark for meaningful change used by the surveyors.) As you know, most employers are navigating multiple challenges in our post-COVID world, including managing remote and hybrid work models, accelerated technological changes, and significant shifts in the labor market that have meant staff shortages across a number of industries.”

Despite discontent with management practices under Herrera, there’s some hope for future collaboration and progress. A bare majority of employees do trust the top brass, and slightly more believe they possess integrity. One challenge will be to convert the large percentage of those who don’t resonate with current management. The other will be correctly interpreting employee satisfaction survey results and properly addressing the feedback provided.

Dr. Derek Kerr is a San Francisco investigative reporter for the Westside Observer and a member of SPJ-NorCal. Contact:

March 21, 2024

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Derek Kerr
Dr. Derek Kerr

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