Low pay, furlough Fridays cited for decline in public works
Low pay and furlough Fridays are among reasons Jackson leaders cite for a sharp decline in public works employees.
Between 2015 and 2016, the department lost nearly 240 workers, reducing the total number of staffers to 157.
The number represents a 10-year low for the department, which had more than 600 full-time employees in 2008, according to the city’s 2016 audit.
Fewer workers mean the city has to outsource jobs like pothole patching and water line repair, work that traditionally could be done in-house.
Ward Two Councilman Melvin Priester blames the decrease, in large part, to low pay and furlough Fridays.
Rank-and-file workers in the department are some of lowest paid in the city, but have some of the toughest duties.
Unlike many municipalities that have night crews to handle problems after hours, workers in Jackson are on call 24-7, and are responsible for, among other things, repairing broken water and sewer lines and filling potholes. Crew members work in all weather conditions, from the hottest summer days to the coldest winter nights.
Poor conditions aside, Priester said the city’s low wages can’t compete with the private sector. “Public Works needs people with commercial licenses and we pay $10 an hour less than the commercial rate. That’s on top of the furlough. We have a wage scale that’s not competitive.”
According to a 2016 open records request, of the department’s then 143 maintenance workers, 83 made less than $21,000 a year, and all but five earned less than $30,000 a year.
Add into that the furlough Fridays, and it’s clear why the city struggles to recruit and maintain workers.
In 2015, Mayor Tony Yarber implemented furlough days to help offset a multimillion-dollar budget deficit.
The furlough means all full-time employees lose one day of pay each month.
For a worker earning $21,000 a year, that amounts to $81 less in pay each month, or $972 a year – 4.6 percent of his or her paycheck.
Mayor-elect Chokwe Antar Lumumba told the Sun he plans to do away with the furloughs once he’s in office.
To do that, he wants to reduce administrative costs, restructure city departments and renegotiate contracts to benefit the city. “I believe we can locate the funds to pay the city’s workforce fully for their hard and dedicated service,” he said.
Administrative costs have already been scaled back. For fiscal year 2017, Jackson leaders budgeted $11.7 million for the mayor’s office, city council and city clerk, down from $13.6 million the year before.
Also, many departments saw their budgets slashed. Public work’s budget was cut by $32 million, to $278 million, and the Jackson Police Department budget was cut by $4 million, to $33 million, according to the city’s 2017 budget book.
Lumumba also said that he wants to better balance the work that is bid out with the work that is done in-house.
Last summer the city advertised for bids for three contracts to fill potholes and repair utility cuts. The work never came to fruition, because all proposals came in over-budget.
A utility cut occurs when a portion of a street must be dug up to repair infrastructure underneath. Usually, the repairs are made, and the holes are filled with dirt and gravel until they can be repaved.
Jackson has been grappling with pay for years.
In 2014, the Jackson City Council approved a plan to gradually increase minimum wage to $10.65 an hour, according to the Clarion-Ledger. However, because of budget constraints, the pay raises were never fully implemented.
At $10.65 an hour, the minimum pay for a full-time worker in the department would be increased to around $22,152 a year.
Even if the increase had gone into effect, city pay would still be lower than the average pay for a construction worker in the state. According to indeed.com, the average pay for a construction laborer is $11.53 an hour.
Ward Four Councilman De’Keither Stamps agrees that pay needs to be raised, but also said the city needs to rebuild the department’s capacity to do work in-house. “We’ve got to use our one-percent funds to purchase equipment and supplies, and use city funds to hire people and maintain the city,” he said.
Stamps said a study should be conducted to determine what equipment exactly is needed.
Until the department is built up, Priester believes public works needs to work smarter, not harder.
“We have to figure out how we can work better with fewer employees. There are a lot of situations where we don’t have the tools we need, or where we send the wrong team out to deal with a problem,” he said. “We have to minimize wasted time.”