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City sanitation worker speaks out on pay disparities, lack of supplies

Edmonds: Public works trying to buy trucks, has PPE on-hand by Tia Lyons | September 12, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

City officials and the Department of Public Works are taking steps to address complaints that were lodged by a public works employee during a recent El Dorado City Council meeting.

Marvin Stewart Sr. approached the council Sept. 9 and laid out grievances that he said are shared by him and other members of the city's sanitation crew, some of whom were in the audience.

Acknowledging that he "will probably have a red target on his back tomorrow," Stewart said he was compelled to speak up and alert council members to issues they may not be aware of within the sanitation department.

Pay disparities, a lack of adequate personal protective equipment and recurring mechanical failures with city garbage trucks were some of the alleged issues that were raised by Stewart.

He told council members that he has worked with the city for two and a half years, having served as a machine operator and as part of the garbage collection crew.

Stewart said he moved to the maintenance team for city parks two days prior to the council meeting.

His opening remarks to city officials were delivered in no uncertain terms.

"(COVID-19) is real serious right now and the PPE (personal protective equipment) at the city sucks big time," Stewart said.

He homed in on city-issued gloves, saying that they seem to be in short supply for sanitation workers.

"Once you have to buy your own gloves, that's pathetic. You're supposed to be taking care of the city. How can you do that when you can't have gloves every day?" he pressed.

He said sanitation workers are exposed to "dirty, filthy things every day," including bacteria and needles.

"We have to be careful. We don't have the proper equipment," he said.

"I'll deal with that first thing in the morning," Council Member Vance Williamson told Stewart.

Stewart went on to say that city garbage trucks break down frequently -- an ongoing issue that poses challenges for sanitation workers, particularly when the mechanical failures occur in the middle of collection runs.

"Once a truck breaks down, we become the truck. We have to do everything by hand," Marvin explained. "Trucks are steadily breaking down and when you ask about another truck, you keep hearing that it's not in the budget."

Stewart said he and other sanitation workers receive a similar response when inquiring about pay raises.

"For two and a half years, I've been asking for 50 cents (an hour) and it's the same thing -- 'it's not in the budget.' Well, who holds the budget?" Stewart asked.

Williamson, chairman of the city finance committee, noted that 3% pay raises for all city employees are included in the 2021 city budget, which was adopted Aug. 19 and went into effect immediately.

"So, you should be seeing that," Williamson said.

Stewart said he was aware of the across-the-board, 3% pay increases but he said sanitation workers are not subject to performance-based evaluations and pay raises.

He also said municipal sanitation workers in other cities in south Arkansas, including Magnolia and Camden, make more than their counterparts in El Dorado -- a point that city officials have previously acknowledged.

Stewart then segued into a related matter, alleging that there are disparities in pay and job responsibilities among some employees in the sanitation department.

"The same people are used every day but you've got this guy riding around in a truck all day. At the end of the day, he's fresh and I'm half-dead," he said.

"They'll say, 'Well, you're in better shape than he is.' He's 30-something and I'm 50-something. You go above and beyond and you're not rewarded for it," Stewart continued. "When you know your worth, it hurts. You just got here and you're making more than me."

Stewart did not specify to whom he was referring.

Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer and Council Member Andre Rucks said a salary and wage survey that was conducted several years ago showed that compensation for several positions within the city lagged behind that in other Arkansas cities that are comparable in size (population) to El Dorado.

"As far as pay raises, that's something that we need to discuss. I don't know the true numbers we're working with yet but we know that El Dorado is behind," Rucks said.

Smith-Creer spoke sternly in reference to Stewart's contentions about disparities in pay and job responsibilities.

"If we're going to be honest ... it's everywhere in the city, not just the sanitation department," the mayor said.

She related a personal connection to the situation, saying that her late father retired from the El Dorado Water Utilities as an employee on the wastewater side.

"He worked hard and we can sit here and act like we don't know what's going on and say we're going to make a phone call and if we say we don't know, then we are liars," she said.

"Shame on anybody up here -- and that includes me -- who doesn't know about the situation because we're elected to serve. That's our job," Smith-Creer continued.

Rucks took issue with a decision council members made late last year to place the director of public works, city treasurer and El Dorado Water Utilities under the direct supervision of the city council.

"That's why I disagree with taking public works out of the mayor's hands. We're not involved in giving guidance and making decisions on these types of issues on a daily basis," Rucks said.

Smith-Creer assured Stewart that his voice had been heard and several council members lauded Stewart for his courage in bringing the issues to their attention.

"I don't like being a complainer. I'll do my job but y'all don't know what goes on at the (City Shop)," said Stewart.

Council Member Dianne Hammond asked Stewart if he had taken the complaints to Robert Edmonds, director of public works, and Stewart said he had not.

"I personally feel like if you had gone to him, it would have been taken care of," Hammond said.

Edmonds, who tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago, was unable to attend the council meeting.

Council Member Paul Choate said the city has purchased a new garbage truck but problems stemming from the pandemic have caused delays and disruptions in the manufacturing and delivery of building materials, equipment, vehicles, supplies, etc., nationwide

"You know what's going on with automobile lots right now. Everything that can run is getting gobbled up right now and it's even worse with heavy equipment," Choate said.

Edmonds corroborated those statements while addressing the matter Sept. 10.

'As far as equipment, he was right'

Edmonds agreed with Stewart's assessment of frequent breakdowns with the city's garbage trucks.

He said the city is working to purchase new trucks but the task is proving difficult.

"As far as the equipment, he was right. We're having a tough time finding equipment. We have a couple of dealers we're working with to find a new truck and we're looking for another truck in addition to that one," Edmonds said.

"The availability of equipment and fixing the parts we've got right now -- we're having a tough time with all of that," he added.

Anthony Traylor, the city's solid waste manager, said the city is running four side-arm garbage trucks, explaining that one -- a rental -- is a used truck that is standing in as a backup for the other three.

Traylor said the side-arm trucks -- dubbed "one-arm bandits" by sanitation crews -- are used for residential collection routes and often break down.

"The problem with the trucks is they're kind of wearing down. The life of the bandits is three, four years and we're in the process of getting more," Traylor said.

"I've been over here (in the sanitation department) for four years and they were here when I got here," Traylor said.

The trucks were purchased and put on the road in 2015 when the city implemented a new residential garbage collection process, switching from rear-loading garbage trucks to the side-arm loaders for residential routes.

The change included the purchase of three new automated garbage trucks and 96-gallon, wheeled garbage carts, which were assigned to local households to use for curbside collections.

Traylor said the rental truck is helping to keep the weekly garbage collection schedule running, slowly, but surely.

"It's going a little bit better but when the bandits are down, we use our rear-loader trucks for residential but they are normally used for commercial routes," he explained.

The city operates three rear-loading trucks -- rotating the third with the other two, as needed -- and three knuckle boom trucks, one each to collect household trash, leaves and limbs.

With recurring mechanical failures, Traylor admits that sanitation crews have fallen behind on pickups of household trash and yard waste.

Crews have been working later hours and sometimes on the weekend to try and catch up, and a couple of sanitation employees were scheduled to make pickups on Saturday, he said.

Traylor also said the city is looking into purchasing a new knuckle boom truck in the future.

For now, the sanitation department is strategizing ways to work around the truck breakdowns and provide the best service possible to the city.

"When one of the boom trucks breaks down, we're lacking but we try to get to the leaves and (household) junk before it breaks down," he said. "When all of our equipment is running strong, we have a good group of people to get it up -- trash, garbage, leaves and all."

"Sometimes we have to leave a few neighborhoods and come back and start the next morning. We ask the public for their patience. We'll get to it eventually. Our main goal is to please the people and get the garbage off the streets," Traylor continued.

Other issues

In the meantime, Edmonds said he is working to sort through the other grievances that were aired during the council meeting.

"I believe some of that was blown out of proportion. I'm not being unsympathetic. They have a tough job, no doubt, but I think there are some personality conflicts there," Edmonds said.

He said that when Williamson reached out to him with questions about the gloves, Edmonds directed Traylor and Richard Kesee, assistant solid waste manager, to stock up on gloves so that plenty will be available in the city's warehouse.

Traylor said the sanitation department keeps a variety of gloves on hand for employee use, including double-sided, all-weather gloves, elbow-length disposable gloves and latex gloves.

"Those cloth-and-rubber gloves, really, they should last about a week. The gloves that come up to your elbow, the kind they use at the (Union County Landfill), they refuse to use those because they get kind of hot," Traylor said. "It's really not a reason why someone shouldn't have gloves."

Edmonds agreed, saying, "We've got gloves. I don't really know where the breakdown was. I wish (Stewart) would have come and talked to me if there was a problem getting gloves. I see invoices for gloves weekly."

When asked about Stewart's comments regarding pay raises and job duties, Edmonds said he is looking into the matter and will comment further once he gathers more information.

"As far as pay goes, you know as well as anybody, we're bound by a budget and if it's not in the budget, we can't give what we don't have," he said. "I'm going to have to look into that. I'm not trying to dodge your question, I'm just going to have to look into that a little deeper first."

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