COLUMBIA — On a sunny May day, Charles Thompson balances his feet on a metal rung and holds on tight to the handles on the back of a city garbage truck as it creeps down a well-kept residential street in the Old Southwest.
Thompson leans over, almost parallel to the ground but still grasping the truck, and grabs a garbage bag, using his body’s momentum to swing it into the back of the truck. If there’s a large amount of trash, he and the truck’s driver work together, splitting up to go to different houses.
The manual labor and heavy lifting aside, it seems a simple enough job. But Thompson and his co-workers aren’t too happy. These days, they say, routes are so long that they often end up tossing trash bags right on through their lunch hour. And they say that under the city’s new system for evaluating employee performance, most will get a raise that amounts to little more than 10 cents an hour this year. These and other conditions made employees of the city’s Solid Waste Utility division decide they were fed up.
On the morning of March 20, about 40 division employees gathered at the Grissum Building with the intent of staging a walkout. But Regina Guevara, union leader for Public Employees Laborers’ Union Local 773, said union steward Larry Winn got a call from Solid Waste management. He and other union leaders warned the group that walking out could mean losing their jobs. Everyone went back to work, but their complaints didn’t stop there. They went straight to City Council on April 7, where Guevara read a written statement.
Solid Waste Utility manager Richard Wieman said that action — taking grievances to the council — failed to follow normal procedures for expressing grievances.
“Employees go through the next-level supervisors, then they go to me, then the (Public Works) director’s office,” Wieman said.
Guevara said she and other union members thought working through that system would have produced no results.
“The (employees) told me, ‘They don’t want to communicate,’” Guevara said. She said though there was no official communication with supervisors or Wieman, she thinks the supervisors knew of their concerns.
Chief among the crews’ complaints are the latest round of evaluations. City policies call for 3 percent raises for employees who exceed expectations, 1 percent raises for those who meet expectations, and no raise to those whose performance is subpar.
Thompson, who also is a union steward, said that some of the first employees to get their raises were widely expected by their peers to be given 3 percent pay increases. When many of them came back with evaluations granting them raises of only 1 percent, they worried.
“The first six guys got 1 percent, and then it was looking like everyone was going to get 1 percent and no one would get 3 percent,” Thompson said. “When the guys really work hard and they don’t get their incentive, there’s concern.”
Thompson said that as more evaluations came back, the employees grew more worried. The small raises are particularly frustrating, employees said, because their collection routes have been lengthened as Columbia has grown. He said that each truck and its two or three garbage collectors usually have to make two time-consuming trips to the landfill each day.
Solid Waste employees also complained that they make less than people with comparable jobs elsewhere. Columbia’s entry-level refuse collectors start at $11.43 an hour, but Wieman said that the city strives to hire and promote from within and that most employees increase their wages very early on, or even start above the standard rate.
Still, the wages aren’t enough, Guevara said in her written request for time at the council meeting.
“Employees feel this is not enough incentive for the work they do,” she wrote. She also cited “excessive workloads; trash routes have increased by 200 more houses per route without any extra workforce.”
Wieman said that information is incorrect. Garbage collection routes average 750 homes each, he said, down from 773 in 1982. Although he had no more recent figures to determine whether routes have increased significantly throughout the past few years, he said Columbia grows by about 600 single-family homes per year, making it necessary to completely revamp routes every five or six years. The last time that happened was 2006.
Mayor Darwin Hindman said that although the council cannot make decisions about wage and work issues immediately, the Solid Waste employees succeeded in making the council aware of their complaints. Council members, he said, can address them as they develop the city’s budget for the 2009 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
“When people come before us, they make as strong a case as they possibly can for their position, but I think the negotiations (later this month between city administration and representatives) will ferret out what really needs to be done. When the negotiations are complete, then the staff comes to us with recommendations,” Hindman said.
Hindman was referring to the “meet and confer” sessions that various labor groups have with Assistant City Manager Tony St. Romaine. Those are scheduled to begin later this month. The mayor said he thinks labor representatives understand that their demands may not be met fully after negotiations.
“But they do expect fair negotiations, which is exactly what the city does.”
Wieman said that he thinks existing procedures were sufficient to keep the complaints from being aired at the council meeting.
“They leapfrogged from the discussion with the first-level supervisor to the council,” Wieman said. “That’s not the way to get things done.”
He also emphasized that if employees are unhappy with evaluations, they can ask that they be re-evaluated.
“The system has a mechanism for a reexamination if they wish, and we have reexamined several of them and we’ve taken the appropriate steps based on the examination,” he said.
The new evaluation system is more specific than the one it replaced, evaluating employees on tasks listed in their individual job descriptions. The system has been adopted citywide, and Wieman said all city workers are learning to deal with it.
“This is a brand new program for us,” he said. “We’re learning as we go. The system is a very good system, and if they would follow it, problems would be resolved.”
Guevara said that she and the employees shouldn’t have to endure the waiting period the normal procedure entails. “It’s like it has to go to a crisis before they take action. They say, ‘Because you didn’t specifically tell us, we didn’t know.’ That’s not true.”
Guevara said the ball is now in the city’s court.
“No one called back to ask how we can solve this before City Council,” Guevara said. “I want them to value their employees a little bit better. They should have just stopped everything and talked to their employees.”
Wieman said he’s been surprised by the whole situation and chalks it up to misunderstandings.
“Everybody in their job sometimes gets overwhelmed,” he said. “But in general, these guys and gals do a wonderful job, and they’re out there every day in the rain and the snow and the sleet, and they never complain. It’s really unusual that this even came up.”