City officials say the word sanitation workers waiting to hear
By Alex De Grand
They were the words John Williams said he had been waiting to hear for decades.
When Patrick Johnston, the city’s risk management director, conceded September 13 that garbage collection can be hazardous work, Williams, a solid waste supervisor, was overcome with emotion.
“I worked for the city for 30 years and the poor black man went through hell,” Williams said haltingly, choking back tears. “You don’t know. I swear, you don’t know… You just don’t know… It makes me feel good! Man, I just wish the poor black guys that have gotten hurt, who worked on this job, make this little amount of money could hear what you said… Thank you.”
Williams’ reaction was a release of the tensions that have characterized the exchanges between city officials and the sanitation workers on several occasions.
The predominantly black sanitation workers have cast their complaints with dangerous working conditions and low wages in terms of race and class – even life and death.
At several points, sanitation workers could barely conceal their resentments with city officials who presented statistics blunting their criticisms.
For example, workers were strongly critical of a salary survey showing Lexington pays its solid waste employees well within parameters set by other regional cities including Cincinnati, Chattanooga, Nashville, Knoxville and Montgomery, Alabama.
“All those cities but Cincinnati are southern cities,” Williams said, noting southern cities have a reputation for low wages and historically poor race relations. “Some of them I wouldn’t even go in. As a black person, I’m scared of Montgomery, Alabama.”
Frustrated with facts and figures that downplayed their complaints, Williams and other sanitation workers challenged Lexington to take a leadership role.
They argued garbage collection has traditionally been performed largely by black people, and consequently, it has been socially acceptable to underpay them for years. The workers asked Lexington to be the first city to step forward and recognize the true value of the job.
“I’m asking Lexington, Kentucky to be first – [Lexington] has never been first in nothing,” Williams said. “When I walked past a white school to go to a black school, no mayor of Kentucky spoke up and said, ‘John Williams, you can go to that white school.’
“When I was called the ‘n word,’ no one in Lexington stepped forward.”
While personal testimonies made powerful points, material presented by Jason Bailey of the Democracy Resource Center brought a strong statistical grounding to the sanitation workers’ arguments.
Bailey compiled numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that show sanitation workers – faced with traffic, bacteria, and chemicals found in garbage and dangerous machinery – endure higher fatality rates nationally than even firefighters and police.
“Vehicles are the most common cause of fatal injuries involving refuse collectors,” Bailey reported. “Nonfatal injuries are also common, and include cuts, lacerations, punctures, bruises, and contusions; fractures; sprains, strains, and muscle tears; overexertion; and being struck by, striking against, or being compressed in equipment or objects.
“Containers are the leading source of injury or illness, followed by contact with surfaces such as streets, sidewalks, alleys, and parking lots; free body movement (such as the cumulative trauma of jumping up and off trucks day after day); and vehicles,” Bailey concluded.
Asked if garbage collection is hazardous work following Bailey’s presentation, Johnston suggested that was possible.
“Looking at it from a statistical point of view, you could draw that conclusion,” said Johnston who found agreement among the other city staff on the subcommittee established to consider the workers’ complaints.
Having agreed the work is hazardous, the city needs to decide what it wants to do for the sanitation workers.
City officials often mention their concerns that any adjustments made to solid waste workers’ salaries will have a ripple effect throughout the merit pay scale. If sanitation workers receive a raise, other employees who are not in the solid waste department but share the same job grade would be entitled to a raise also, making the move more costly.
Some sanitation workers suggested the city make their job grade unique so that the raise only affects them. But city officials have their reservations, warning sanitation workers may not like all the consequences of that idea.
For example, if a sanitation worker is so injured that he can’t continue that kind of work, the city can transfer him to a position sharing the same classification rather than simply laying him off, explained Wally Skiba, director of human resources.
As an alternative, Skiba suggested the city could enact ordinances recognizing certain activities in the solid waste department as hazardous and assign extra pay to them.
George Brown, the chairman of the subcommittee, has not announced a date for the next meeting where a recommendation on these issues could be issued to the Budget and Finance Committee.