Low pay results in shortage of road workers; city turns to private firms

Recently, the city of Jackson was given $4 million in one-percent funds for road repairs and resurfacing.

Nearly $1 million of that will go toward bringing on a private contractor to help the city address a backlog of more than 500 potholes.

The city is having to contract the work out because it doesn’t have enough workers to keep up with the load.

At a recent one-percent commission meeting, Public Works Director Robert Miller said that of the 28 authorized positions in the road department, he had just 12 filled.

He went on to say he had a tough time recruiting and retaining workers because of low pay and competition from the private sector.

“A lot of it is a combination of compensation being (too) inadequate to attract and retain workers. The other is businesses being able to hire (away) my staff,” he said.

(Contracting firms can often hire away staffers for $11 or $12 an hour.)

For years, the city has struggled with maintaining front-line workers in the public works department.

The employees are some of the hardest-working in the city, and also some of the lowest paid.

Road maintenance workers make a base salary of $9.70 an hour, or $20,176 a year based on a 40-hour week.

By comparison, the average road worker in Mississippi earns $12.82 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Madison, entry-level laborers start out at $10 an hour, City Clerk Susan Crandall said. And in Ridgeland, they start out at between $10.51 to $11 an hour, Mayor Gene McGee said.

In Jackson, road crew workers make the same as the lowest-paid full-time clerical workers, but about $4,000 a year less than city council members. Council members, who are part time, earn $25,000 a year.

 

The department is struggling, even after Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba made good on a campaign promise to end furlough Fridays as part of the 2017-18 budget, and after the department’s pay structure was reworked to give all front line workers a small boost in pay.

Furlough Fridays were implemented in October 2015 under former Mayor Tony Yarber.

Under the program, non-essential city employees were required to take one day a month off without pay. That day usually came on the month’s third Friday.

For employees earning $9.70 an hour, the furlough equated to a nearly $77 decrease in pay each month.

Restructuring including doing away with the lowest pay level for laborers and moving all workers on that level to the next one.

The increase amounted to a roughly $1 an hour increase, Chief Administrative Officer Robert Blaine said.

“We eliminated the lowest pay scale across the board for everyone (in that work category), so no one starts the job making $8 an hour,” he said. “It’s nowhere close to where we want to be.”

 

With a shortage of road workers, the city has to rely more heavily on private contractors to fill potholes, pave streets and fix utility cuts.

In 2015, the city purchased two pothole patching machines, partly in response to employee shortages.

At the time, then Public Works Director Kishia Powell told the city council the devices could be operated with fewer people than typical road crews, meaning workers could be freed up for other projects.

Combined, the machines cost the city about $400,000.

Miller said the devices are in use “every day we can get asphalt, or whenever the asphalt plants are open,” he said.

The city purchases asphalt from private companies, which can only operate during dry weather.

Even so, the machines sometimes have to be sidelined when crews are needed elsewhere, he said.

 

Council members say laborers need a pay raise, but likely won’t get one until the city’s financial house is in order.

“We all know we need to pay our employees more. We want to pay our employees more - all of them - but we first have to get our revenues on the right side,” said Ward Seven Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay.

Lindsay and Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote pointed to down collections in the water and sewer billing department.

Foote also pointed to revenue shortfalls in parking meter collections and in parks and recreation.

“We straighten those things out and it does a lot to free up revenue,” he said.

Ward Four Councilman De’Keither Stamps suggests using one-percent dollars to purchase equipment for public works, rather than general fund revenues.

Doing that, he said, would free up general fund dollars to give employees additional pay.

“We’ve got money budgeted for equipment. We can get basic equipment with one-percent money and use the equipment money (we’ve budgeted) to pay workers,” he said.

A $1 raise for all 28 positions would amount to an extra $1,120 a week or $58,240 a year.

Foote doesn’t support Stamp’s suggestion, in part, because one-percent monies should be reserved for projects.

The tax was implemented to help the city pay for infrastructure projects, including roads, water and sewer repairs. However, the one-percent oversight commission has approved using the monies for equipment purchases.

Foote also didn’t know whether a $1 raise for road workers would affect the city’s contributions to state retirement.

Said Foote: “It can get complicated because of benefits.”