Workin' for a Livin' (Wage)
City employees' wages are political issue
By Alex De Grand

Today, it's the Lexington sanitation workers who want more money and better retirement benefits.

Employees from the city's traffic engineering, streets and roads, and sanitary sewer divisions have already told Lexington's elected leaders they want to be next in line.

A number of candidates for Lexington's urban county council predict more city employees won't be too far behind.

"A living wage for city-county employees will be a huge issue in coming years," said Dale Edinger who is running in the sixth district against incumbent Al Mitchell.

Larry Ashlock (campaigning in the seventh district against incumbent Willy Fogle) and Peter Hanzel (challenging incumbent Jennifer Mossotti in the ninth district) noted Lexington is an increasingly expensive place to live.

"I'm a fiscal conservative, but if we want good, quality workers, we need to pay them like any other enterprise," Hanzel said.

Sanitation workers have proposed a starting salary of $11.65 an hour for refuse collectors and $14.24 an hour for equipment operators. In September, the city reported the current starting salaries to be $8.27 an hour for refuse collectors and $9.94 an hour for equipment operators.

In the what could become the first of many battles over wages, Edinger, Hanzel and Ashlock - joined by Robert Moreland (running in the eighth district against incumbent Fred Brown) - have publicly sided with the sanitation workers.

And sanitation workers are finding support from some of those already on the council.

On October 25, council members Al Mitchell, George Brown and David Stevens passed several recommendations from their subcommittee charged with reviewing sanitation workers' complaints. The recommendations are scheduled for consideration 3 p.m. November 6 by the Budget and Finance Committee.

The first recommendation is to ask the state legislature to allow solid waste employees into the hazardous duty retirement system.

That state-operated system currently admits police, firefighters and jail employees. The sanitation workers want to participate, citing their high incidence of injury which by some statistics are greater than even police and fire personnel.

Hazardous duty retirement allows an employee to retire after 20 years rather than 27.

The second recommendation is to have the city consider establishing a new category for the sanitation workers within the city's pay structure.

This would address city officials' fears that any change to sanitation workers' salaries could end up being more expensive than intended because those workers currently share a classification that includes other city employees who would also be entitled to any raise under the merit system rules.

A new classification for solid waste workers could allow changes that would only affect them.

The third recommendation is to establish a $50-per-month pay supplement for employees assigned to collecting refuse or operating the solid waste department's equipment.

This recommendation, unlike the others, did not receive unanimous support. Mitchell would not vote for the measure because he argued $50 was too little money.

The other council members explained the amount had to be reasonable enough to garner a majority on the full council.

In addition to the interest this issue has garnered among politicians, support for the sanitation workers' plight has steadily grown in the community.

Attendance at meetings between city officials and sanitation workers has increased to the point where the October 25 meeting drew about 60 people, many of whom had to stand in the fifth floor conference room of the Government Center.

A great boost of support has come from students at the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University where a teach-in on the issue held October 23 drew about 35 people, according to organizers.

Students and other community members explain the issue strikes them as one of right and wrong. Many of the students supporting the sanitation workers demonstrated against sweat shops earlier this year and they argue those two situations share many similarities.

"People have to be treated with respect," Amanda Lewis, a UK student, explained at a Labor Day rally that spotlighted the sanitation workers. "It doesn't make a difference where they live. A worker exploited here is just as bad as a worker exploited in Mexico or Nicaragua."

Often, community members cite Dr. Martin Luther King who was assassinated while working with sanitation workers in Memphis. The long shadow of that legendary civil rights leader is cast over Lexington where the vast majority of the city's sanitation workers are black and raising many of the same issues as those Memphis workers, they argue.

Articulating another one of the powerful feelings behind this struggle, Ashlock said city spending can seem misdirected.

"I'm a conservationist and I want to support green space, but I don't think the city should pay horse farmers $2 million [as part of the farmland preservation program] when it can't even pay its own workers," Ashlock said.

Alex De Grand can be reached at 225-4889 ext. 232 or


Musical Chairs

University of Kentucky historian Lance Banning is still without an endowed chair (an amount of money to supplement salary and fund research). And a report from the state auditor's office argues faculty like him shouldn't be privy to a major source of such supplemental funds.

Earlier this year, the UK history department was looking to lure an outstanding scholar to the school with an endowed chair. Then the department learned Banning, one of their own with an impressive resumé of academic achievement, might leave for another university.

Having found no professor as qualified as the one in danger of leaving, the department decided its endowed chair should go to Banning to keep him on board.

But UK President Charles Wethington refused to allow the endowed chair to be used in any other way than as an incentive for hiring new faculty.

Since then, Banning reports discussion of creating some other incentive to keep him at UK, but there is nothing concrete. At the same time, the history department has yet to fill the endowed chair.

The state auditor's office weighed in October 31 with a report asserting state universities receiving "Bucks for Brains," state matching money to help schools build up endowments, should use those funds only for hiring new faculty. - ADG

Yat's Switch

Anyone try to go to the big farewell show at Yat's last Friday, only to find the doors chained? Here's the word from Yat's own Ross Compton: "We arrived Friday morning to open the restaurant and were informed that the doors were being chained and we would not be allowed to open for business that day (our final scheduled day of business at South Hill Station). We were given no prior notice. We had previously been given assurance that we would be able to stay in the building until the end of October. The only explanation offered by the building's owner... for the chaining of the building was alleged vandalism the prior evening. It has NOT been alleged that Yat's had anything to do with the vandalism." Compton and the Yat's crew are still searching for new gigs; meanwhile, all the shows previously scheduled at Yat's will be heard at Detour. Check the Ace List's Gigs & Concerts page to keep up-to-date. -RB