Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Should City Workers Get COVID Bonus?

Public Works employees can't work from home, face more risk of COVID-19.

By - Apr 1st, 2020 12:34 pm
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A garbage truck in a Milwaukee alley. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A garbage truck in a Milwaukee alley. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Most of the approximately 1,950 employees that make up Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works (DPW) continue to show up to work, while hundreds of other city employees have shifted to working from home.

They’re doing the unsung, and often unseen work to keep the city running, including maintaining the water distribution system, fixing sewers and picking up garbage.

But they haven’t been immune to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. DPW Commissioner Jeff Polenske told the Common Council’s Public Works Committee that absences jumped from 60 to approximately 600 last week. “It’s gotten better this week to some extent,” he said.

Polenske said crews, including street maintenance, forestry and sanitation, are being mixed to ensure personnel levels can be maintained. “It’s really how we use the personnel we have,” he added. Services like street sweeping and brush pickup have been suspended. Forestry is primarily focused on emergency issues, like trees falling into streets.

The two drop-off centers for everything from yard waste and recycling to tires and old paint cans remain open. “Our concern is if we close the doors on those it will end up somewhere else,” said Polenske. To protect employees and visitors by minimizing interaction the new fee structure has been suspended.

The city’s automobile tow lot also remains open, though volume is down significantly as parking regulations have been relaxed.

“Your people have been performing above and beyond the call of duty. Has there been any discussion about giving them a little bonus for still showing?” asked Alderman Robert Bauman. “There’s an issue of fairness here.” Before Polenske spoke, Department of Neighborhood Services Commissioner Erica Lewandowski briefed the committee on how 90 percent of her department is now working from home.

The alderman brought up the example of two people performing repairs where they are handing wrenches to one another. “You can’t be six feet apart when they’re doing some of the work they’re doing,” said Bauman. Polenske said whenever possible social distancing guidelines were being observed.

Bauman suggested the city could use some of the estimated $105 million it will receive from the federal stimulus proposal to reward those still working.

But Polenske cautioned things won’t be that simple. Revenues are down from the drop-off center and parking tickets and the city could experience issues elsewhere.

The commissioner said DPW would consider its options. “I think there would be some support on the council for people who are showing up versus sitting at home,” said Bauman.

Bauman said he was concerned about weeks from now. “If you start getting back to 600 absentees and 1,200 absentees, suddenly you can’t pick up garbage,” said the alderman. “That’s my concern.”

“I think we all have that same concern,” said Polenske.

Polenske got an offer of an extra set of hands from an unexpected place. “I am able to do manual labor. I have no electrical knowledge or anything, but if I can help in water works or sanitation and do a shift, please call me,” said Ald. Mark Borkowski.

He praised the city employees for their commitment. “Please let them know how grateful we all are, because this is really tough times,” said Borkowski.

The committee did not discuss the other two departments that are showing up to work as usual, the Milwaukee Police Department and Milwaukee Fire Department. The Public Safety & Health Committee is scheduled to meet on Thursday morning.

What About Workers With COVID-19 Symptoms?

Bauman asked what happens when an employee starts showing symptoms or has a confirmed case of COVID-19?

“Obviously there is some confidentially that is associated with somebody’s health and anything they might be dealing with,” said Polenske. He said DPW is working with the Milwaukee Health Department and Department of Employee Relations (DER) on its response plan. DER has now provided a template that DPW can use.

The department was subject to news reports last week regarding its notification procedures. An employee’s wife tested positive for the disease and the employee began experiencing symptoms on March 18th. But a letter wasn’t sent to other sewer services employees until March 26th. The letter said the affected employee was immediately placed on paid leave and employees with direct contact with the individual were notified by the health department.

Parking Issues

Ald. Nik Kovac praised the department’s move to suspend most parking regulations as many people shift to working from home, but said one issue remains.

“The aggressive enforcement where someone’s two or three feet from the edge of a driveway I would like us to ease up on that one,” said Kovac. City regulations require a vehicle to be parked a minimum of four feet from a driveway.

Kovac said he was in favor of the department’s decision to continue to issue tickets to vehicles that block fire hydrants or driveways, but his constituents were raising concerns of aggressive enforcement on the four-foot rule.

Polenske said he wasn’t aware of a policy decision to do so and would look into it.

Pandemic Planning

There is one division of DPW that already had a pandemic plan in place – the Milwaukee Water Works (MWW). Responsible for distributing drinking water to the city and 15 other communities, the utility has approximately 320 employees.

Former Superintendent Carrie Lewis led the creation of a pandemic response plan as a result of the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak in 2009. Current Superintendent Karen Dettmer said she’s been following it, including reconfiguring shifts and spacing workers where possible.

“I feel confident that right now we have a good workforce in place that is healthy, that is maintaining distances,” said Dettmer.

Coronavirus is not a risk to spread via drinking water. “Milwaukee has long treated our water with ozone and chlorine disinfection, and filtration. The World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control, and EPA confirm these conventional water treatment methods should remove or inactivate COVID-19,” says the MWW website.

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