Mayor James Sottile called delays in picking up garbage, one day after he imposed new and unpopular work rules on Department of Public Works employees, “borderline criminal.” But union leaders denied any intentional work slowdown and blame the failure on poor planning by DPW officials.
The problem occurred on Monday, the first day that Sottile’s ban on “stint work” went into effect. Previously, DPW employees bid for jobs, including garbage runs, based on seniority and were allowed to go home once they’d completed their tasks for the day. As a result, some DPW workers on trash duty could complete their run in as little as three hours, then have the rest of the day free, time which many workers used to moonlight.
Under the new system, announced by Sottile last month as a cost saving measure, all DPW workers are placed in a common labor pool and assigned tasks on a daily basis. The elimination of stint work also requires all employees to put in a full eight-hour day (including a half-hour for lunch and two 15 minute breaks) and take on new tasks once initial work assignments are completed.
On Monday, Nov. 2, DPW workers failed to complete one garbage run through Downtown Kingston, leaving trash piled up on the streets in scenes mildly reminiscent of the New York City garbage strikes of the 1970s. DPW Superintendent Mike Schupp said that other runs were completed, but took far longer than usual. The following day, Election Day is a paid holiday for city employees. Bart Robins, president of the Kingston Civil Service Employees Association said that it should come as no surprise that new crews, unaccustomed to the rigors of trash hauling, would work less efficiently than the stint-work teams which often worked together on the same garbage run for years.
“You had guys out there who had never picked up trash and unless you’re used to picking up six tons of garbage every day, you really can’t get to a place where you can get it all done in four or six hours,” said Robins.
The union leader added that the stint work teams would usually come in 15 to 20 minutes early to perform mandatory safety inspections on their trucks. Now, he said, workers don’t know which jobs or vehicles they’ll be assigned to until work assignments are handed out at 7 a.m., eliminating the head start and putting trucks on the street during the morning rush hour. Robins added that it was a bad idea to implement the new rules in November when three paid holidays (Veterans Day and Thanksgiving, as well as Election Day) slow down the flow of trash collection.
“It was a poorly thought-out plan by the city,” said Robins. “People had no idea where to go, what to do, where to begin runs, where to end runs. It was a big clusterfuck.”
Other DPW employees said that the slowdown was caused in part by a crackdown by supervisors on the practice of collecting trash from both sides of the street at once. The practice is a violation of safety rules, but also saves time. Until recently, the prohibition was widely ignored.
Schupp called the assertion that a lack of experienced crews was to blame for the delay “hogwash” and said that it appeared that some DPW workers were intentionally slowing down their work flow to protest the elimination of stint work.
“For all intents and purposes you have the same work out there and the same employees out there,” said Schupp. “The union, I think is making an effort to slow things down and it will not be tolerated.”
Sottile said that he received about 40 calls yesterday from people upset over the unfinished garbage runs as well as reports of garbage trucks rumbling through the streets at 3 miles per hour.
“You have a run that takes two and a half or three hours and now, because stint work is abolished it takes seven or eight hours?,” said Sottile. “I’ll let the public decide if they buy that. I was born at night, but I wasn’t born last night.”
Sottile added that an intentional work slowdown was illegal. “If CSEA is trying to send a message, we will act swiftly to make adjustments,” said Sottile. “What they’re doing is borderline criminal. They’re stealing from the taxpayers.”
“People have to really have to take a few minutes, take a deep breath and understand that there’s something happening that is not permanent,” Ward 9 Alderman Mike Madsen said Tuesday. “A lot of folks are looking for something to be angry about, and some of the people in the one department decided to give them something. Let the council, the administration and the departments involved settle this. It’s not like the garbage is going to be on your front lawn for the rest of the winter. … Have patience. Let us work through it.
“The impression that people have of the services being slowed down on purpose, I’m hoping that is not the case,” Madsen added. “With some finesse, the department heads are going to figure it out.”
“Part of the problem is this ongoing fight between the leadership of the CSEA and the mayor,” said Seventh Ward Alderman and Minority Leader Bill Reynolds Tuesday. “This might have something to do with that … I certainly hope that the garbage isn’t being left in the street because of this dispute. We’re talking about public health matters and this is very serious business.”
Private haulers ahead?
Robins said that he believed the elimination of stint work, and the subsequent criticism of slower garbage runs was part of a plan by Sottile to set the stage for the privatization of trash collection in the city. Sottile and Schupp both raised the possibility of outsourcing the work if DPW workers did not adjust to the new work rules.
“This community is spending $3 million a year to collect garbage and if (DPW) cannot do it in a timely fashion, I bet somebody out there can.”
Robins flatly denied any union-directed work slowdown, but conceded that morale among the rank and file had taken a hit from the disruption caused by the elimination of stint work and the prospect of 28 layoffs next year.
“Are some people disgruntled? Sure,” said Robins. “Some of them had their lives turned upside down, they have to arrange child care, some of them had to give up second jobs and some of the people on the trucks are being laid off Jan. 1, so what incentive do they have to do anything?”
With additional reporting by Dan Barton