Politics & Government

‘We are treated like garbage.’ Lexington sanitation workers demand city fix pay disparities

Lexington sanitation workers say starting employees are making more than employees who have been there for decades. They want the city to implement a “step” program that guarantees pay raises over time to get rid of the inequalities in pay.
Lexington sanitation workers say starting employees are making more than employees who have been there for decades. They want the city to implement a “step” program that guarantees pay raises over time to get rid of the inequalities in pay. Staff File Photo

A group of Lexington solid waste employees told the Lexington council Thursday that pay disparities between starting and longtime employees was crushing morale in the department that picks up the city’s garbage.

“I’ve been a garbage man for 20 years and I’m making $17 an hour,” said George Guyn, a Lexington solid waste employee. There are employees that have been there for only a few years that make more than $20, he said.

The sanitation workers told the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council during its meeting they wanted the same pay scale program as police, fire and corrections. That type of system is commonly called a“step” program which means employees earn more based on years of service and other factors. All three of those departments are represented by unions that are recognized by the city as collective bargaining units.

“This job, what we do, is ranked number five in terms of danger,” Guyn said. “When we miss your container, you call us like you need police or fire.”

The city recognizes the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees or AFSCME chapter of the solid waste workers but does not treat them the same as police, fire and corrections unions. The city meets with the union under a system called “meet and confer,” an alternative to full union status.

Dion Henry, the president of the local AFSCME chapter, said city officials have repeatedly told them that under the terms of “meet and confer” they can not discuss pay. But Henry and others argued that they were not talking about wages but rather a system to fix long-standing pay disparities in the department.

“There are people who are coming in off the street that are making more than people who have been here a decade, fifteen years,” Henry said. But Henry said when they tried to discuss it with city officials “we are treated like garbage.”

Vice Mayor Steve Kay agreed to put the issue of sanitation workers pay disparity into a council committee.

“It doesn’t sound right and we should fix it if we can,” Kay said.

Mayor Jim Gray, who leaves office in December, said, he, too would look at the pay issue and would do what he could before he leaves office.

Other council members said they were angry pay inequities continue to plague city government after the city allocated nearly $2 million in 2015 to address the issue across city government.

Much of that money was supposed to fix pay inequities in the city’s solid waste division, said Councilman Kevin Stinnett.

“These inversions were not supposed to happen,” Stinnett said. An inversion is when a starting employee makes more money than someone who has been doing the same job for years.

Chief Administrative Officer Sally Hamilton said she would bring the council a proposal that would determine how much a step program would cost, but Hamilton cautioned that if the city did adjusted pay for solid waste employees other departments will want it too.

“We have a lot of other divisions that will want this if we do steps in just one place,” Hamilton said. “It’s a question of fairness.”

Hamilton said she did not know why pay inversions like the ones in solid waste continue to happen after the city spent millions trying to fix the problem.

After the meeting Henry and other solid waste employees said they are different than other city employees. They are dues paying members of the AFSCME. Other city divisions are not. Moreover, solid waste generates a lot of money for the city through trash, dumpster and other fee-based programs.

“There’s money in our budget for a steps program,” Henry said.

The city has struggled to both recruit and keep drivers with commercial driver licenses in solid waste. A shortage of CDL drivers led to delays in yard waste pick up this summer. If something isn’t done to fix the pay disparities, it will continue to get harder to keep solid waste employees, Henry said.

This is not the first time the city’s solid waste employees have brought their grievances directly to the Lexington council. In 2015, workers told the council they had concerns about safety, injuries, overtime pay and sick leave. Eventually, the city agreed to change its memorandum of understanding with the sanitation worker’s union to address the worker’s concerns.