Look for the Union Label
Sanitation workers ponder unionization
By Alex De Grand

Most days, David Sams takes

out the trash. Then there are

those days when the trash takes out Sams.

Sams, a Lexington sanitation worker for 15 years, recalled a hot summer day he and a co-worker on the garbage truck emptied a Herbie containing pool cleaning bottles into the compactor. The heat had transformed the chemicals in the bottles into a nasty vapor that quickly affected Sams' co-worker. Eventually, Sams remembered, he succumbed to the fumes too.

And some might consider those to be the good days, as far as mishaps on the job go.

Getting hit by a car is a constant worry, Sams said.

"I remember when I worked on Mt. Tabor and Alumni Drive one foggy morning and I heard a car coming," Sams said. "My brain was telling my feet to move but I was frozen in place...The car came within three feet of hitting me behind the truck."

Sams observed that several of his colleagues have not been as lucky.

Citing numbers collected by the city, Sams said there have been more than 500 injuries suffered by sanitation workers over the last decade. Many of these injuries were severe, he noted.

Patrick Johnston, the city's director of risk management, reported the solid waste department has had 45 worker's compensation claims this fiscal year, coming in fourth behind the detention center (landing third place with 61 claims), the fire and emergency services (the second place finisher with 110 claims) and the police department (first place holder with 132 claims).

But even when there are no accidents, the physical work itself pounds the body, said Sams.

And if a worker is injured and cannot work, the pay is so low that it puts a hardship on families, he observed.

Due to their working conditions, Sams said the city should extend hazardous duty retirement to them.

The city already extends hazardous duty retirement to police and firefighters. The mayor's new budget calls for giving the benefit to the detention center employees.

Among other things, hazardous duty retirement is a benefit allowing an employee to retire after 20 years rather than 27. Obviously, it costs a government more to offer the benefit.

Susan Straub, a city spokeswoman, said the city hasn't run any numbers for the cost of extending the benefit to sanitation workers because the city believes they are not eligible under the state rules governing the system.

"The [hazardous duty retirement] system is defined to focus on public safety hazards like a police officer being shot as opposed to injuries on the job," Straub said.

Despite the city's explanations, discontent among some sanitation workers has grown.

"This job is too hard on the body to go 27 years," Sams stated. "I'm 36. I've had two knee surgeries. I walk around like a 60-year-old."

Sams pointed out another issue is wages.

Straub said solid waste workers like Sams start at $7.50 an hour.

Sams said those types of wages need to be considered against how much basic necessities like housing cost in Lexington.

For example, someone earning $7.50 an hour in a 40-hour week makes about $15,600 a year.

The city, in its most recent housing market study, reports a typical fair market rent for a one-bedroom unit to be $426, including utilities. The city's study, suggesting a household shouldn't expend more than 30 percent of its income on housing and utilities, reports such a unit requires an income of $17,040.

Sams noted that many sanitation workers have second jobs.

Straub said the mayor's budget proposes raising the starting wage from $7.50 to $8.26 an hour. If that happens, a person working 40 hours a week could earn about $17,180 annually.

Straub added the department's current average wage for street-level solid waste employees is $10.45 an hour.

Despite those qualifications, some sanitation workers are looking at unionization, Sams said. There is a feeling that concerns in the department are not adequately represented by the existing structure of city government, he said.

Sanitation workers deserve better, Sams thinks.

"We have low-class jobs, but that doesn't mean we are low-class people," he said.

The idea was scheduled for discussion during a meeting Wednesday night. Chris Sanders, a representative of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, said he was asked to attend the meeting.

(Unfortunately, the meeting time was set to occur after press deadline so we have no details at this time.)

Sams anticipates an uphill battle for unionization, explaining workers are often threatened with the prospect of privatizing the service whenever they have talked about the idea in the past.

But if the sanitation workers can achieve a union with full participation, Sams said that including other city workers would be a goal.

According to the Kentucky Labor Cabinet, a number of local governments in Kentucky have union contracts with public employees, including Paducah, Covington, Jefferson County Fiscal Court and Pike County Fiscal Court.

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


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