Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

City Faces Shortage of Garbage Truck, Snowplow Drivers

Milwaukee raising starting pay by $5,400.

By - Oct 27th, 2021 05:54 pm
City of Milwaukee garbage truck with attached snow plow trying to clear the street. Photo taken February 12th, 2019 by Jeramey Jannene.

City of Milwaukee garbage truck with attached snow plow trying to clear the street. Photo taken February 12th, 2019 by Jeramey Jannene.

The City of Milwaukee is boosting starting pay for truck drivers by $5,400 in a move aimed at addressing the shortage of garbage truck and snowplow drivers as winter approaches.

Based on the 2021 city budget and a Department of Employee Relations (DER) report, the Department of Public Works is currently short several dozen drivers. Those individuals, who hold a commercial driver’s license (CDL), are in large demand nationwide.

As a result of the shortage, under a best-case scenario detailed by DPW staff last week, it will take longer to plow the streets this winter.

In the past three years, from its authorized strength of approximately 260 “operations driver workers,” DPW has lost 129 employees for reasons other than retirement. Forty-nine of the drivers left with less than a year of service. “Exit interviews consistently cite that pay is too low for the difficult work that is required,” says the DER report.

Compounding the pay issue is the difficulty of the job. The individuals are assigned to sanitation trucks or other driving roles most of the time and daily garbage collection routes are longer than they previously were, says the report. DPW representatives told the council that sanitation workers are also having hostile encounters with citizens who are either blocking alleys or trying to force their way around trucks.

Department representatives told the Public Works Committee on Oct. 20 that they’re losing workers because of low pay, high stress, the lack of structured raises and increasing private sector benefits.

A worst-case scenario has the shortage growing because of a COVID-19 mandate and increased licensing requirements while a cold, snowy winter causes snow to build up on city streets.

And while a DER wage study suggests raising the base pay rate to $46,030, the top pay rate would stay at $53,000.

Currently 187 workers make below the minimum and would receive a raise to the new minimum. But those above the current minimum wouldn’t receive a raise.

That had council members at Wednesday’s meeting of the Finance & Personnel Committee raising concerns about wage compression and the “whack a mole” approach to wage increases in the city.

DER conducts wage studies for individual positions and then recommends salary changes. DER director Makda Fessahaye told the committee her office is receiving an “unprecedented” number of requests.

“It’s a sign of a broken system unable to keep up with pay,” said Alderman Scott Spiker. He has a pending budget amendment that would fund an additional staff member just to conduct the studies.

“We work as quickly as we possibly can, but yeah there is always another one to look at and try to bring up [the salary],” said human resources manager Andrea Knickerbocker.

She said it also creates a problem between city workers. “It just creates this ‘what about us?’ and our intention is to get to them, but our process is to do them one at a time,” said Knickerbocker.

In this case there is an obvious “what about us”: DPW forestry services workers that are redeployed to drive snowplows as part of a second shift of drivers.

The short-term solution is they will be paid on the same pay scale as operations driver workers (ODWs), but only when they’re plowing.

“We have been promising them we would complete [their reassessment] by the end of the year and that’s a bigger picture study of all of their positions,” said Knickerbocker.

But Spiker, Milele A. Coggs and committee chair Ald. Michael Murphy each pointed out that those forestry workers might just jump to become an ODW or leave for private industry.

“The forestry workers here are also CDL holders and would be subject to the same market forces as ODW workers,” said Spiker.

“I just don’t want to compound the problem,” said Murphy.

Chuck Schumacher, DPW finance and administration manager, said that was “probably unlikely.” He said the type of work, aside from plowing, is different. “I don’t think it’s likely to create a significant systematic problem for us.”

The 2022 budget, as proposed, contains one thing that budget director Dennis Yaccarino thinks could help address the issue: a 2% across-the-board raise for general city workers.

“Given what DER is saying it sounds important that we do that on an annual basis because it sounds like a lot of their work is caused by us not doing that on an annual basis,” said Yaccarino.

“It gets back to our structural financial difficulties,” said Murphy. “If you’re going to increase compensation you are going to have to cut somewhere else.”

The ODW raise would cost the city an additional $132,000 in 2021 and $858,000 in 2022.

The new ODW payscale retains a perk: individuals driving any piece of equipment during an ice control or snowplow operation will be paid an additional 1%.

The city’s residency incentive also remains in effect. General city workers, including all DPW employees, who are city residents earn an additional 3%.

DPW is trying to use other strategies to improve its snowplowing readiness: expanding its fleet of private contractors and hiring retirees.

“I believe we have onboarded seven to 10 of them,” said Schumacher of the retirees. “Some of them prefer just to drive. Others prefer to be mentors to new drivers.”

For more on the city’s potential issues with plowing snow, see our coverage from last week. For an inside look at how a snowplowing operation works, see our 2020 coverage.

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Categories: City Hall, Politics, Weekly

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