A dearth of full-time residential trash collection workers continues to challenge Columbia as the city prepares to spend 54 percent more on temporary trash workers in fiscal year 2019.
City Council members voiced concern after hearing from a labor union representative and solid waste collection workers about low pay and understaffing in the utility at a Monday night City Council meeting.
It’s part of a larger trend among city workers, who are leaving jobs to join private businesses that pay more, said Steve Hunt, solid waste manager for the city, in an interview Monday. Hunt said wages in Columbia cannot compete with the private sector.
The city has 14 vacancies in the solid waste utility, according to a report dated July 23. The city has relied on temporary agencies for curbside collection of trash and recycling, according to a report presented to council Monday night. The city currently employs 10 temporary workers a day for residential collections, Hunt said.
Four temporary agencies have contracted with the city in the past, but three of them have quit providing service. One stopped providing solid waste utility workers because of high compensation claims, while the other two quit for unspecified reasons. According to the report presented to council, $1.4 million in workers’ compensation to solid waste utility workers has been paid by the city since fiscal 2008.
The remaining agency, People Ready, raised wages for its temporary workers.
Eric Scott, field representative for Local 773 of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said Monday night that the temporary workers are being paid $20 per hour, higher than most of the current collection staff. Most of the vacant city positions pay $15.99 an hour, though three pay less than that.
The estimated cost to the city for temporary trash and recycling collectors in fiscal 2018 is $160,210. Hunt said the projected cost for fiscal 2019 of $246,500 takes into account the increased pay to staff from People Ready.
“From a straight financial standpoint, it would be cheaper to pay our staff a higher wage than to hire temp agencies,” Hunt said.
When temporary agencies are unable to fully staff curbside garbage collection, unfilled routes are split between available drivers. Temporary and full-time staff must work longer hours, and even supervisors are used to fulfill trash-collecting duties.
“Everyone here today had to split routes,” Scott said, referring to the workers who stood in support behind him.
The city and Local 773 of have reached a tentative agreement on amendments for fiscal 2019 to the current three-year labor contract, according to a council memo. The amended contract would include a 25 cents per hour pay increase for employees not already at the pay-range maximum.
Scott said Monday night that the wages for all public works employees were not comparable to wages of similar municipalities in Missouri. The labor union originally submitted a proposed wage increase of $2 per hour to counter the disproportion, which the city declined.
“It is the most important job for quality of life for the citizens of Columbia,” Scott said.
Some council members spoke in favor of making adjustments to the city’s policy on pay raises because of the unique and vital nature of the job. Mayor Brian Treece recommended holding a work session to further discuss the issue.
Council members introduced the amendments at Monday night’s meeting. Members of the union are expected to ratify the contract by vote before Aug. 20.
The new amendments would take effect Sept. 23.
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