Service workers seek better pay: Chattanooga eyes system union rep calls 'an extreme mess'

Service workers seek better pay: Chattanooga eyes system union rep calls 'an extreme mess'

August 4th, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

Chattanooga public works employees Kevin Fox, Tony Spencer and George Claiborne, from left, install fence posts Thursday at St. Elmo Park on St. Elmo Avenue.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster/Times Free Press.

POLL: Are city nonsupervisory workers underpaid?

BY THE NUMBERS

1,150: City service employees

1.5%: Amount of latest cost-of-living pay increase

WHAT'S NEXT

A year-long study of service workers' pay is expected to begin in September.

A push by the service workers union to raise Chattanooga employees' wages has led to a campaign by garbage collectors, sewage workers, librarians and others that now has the attention of City Hall.

Service Employees International Union leaders say there is major pay inequity among the city's 1,150 service employees under the city's general pay plan, where employees don't have the option to move up the pay scale unless they are promoted or receive cost-of-living percentage increases.

"There's discrepancies all over the place," said Doug Collier, president of SEIU Local 205. "It's an extreme mess."

That's why city officials say they will spend the next year studying the pay plan and deciding how to address disparities. They plan to budget money in the following year to start implementing changes.

The campaign led by SEIU began June 3 at a City Council meeting, before this fiscal year's budget was approved. Dozens of employees in yellow work vests and stickers reading, "We need a raise," filled the chamber seats to challenge a scheduled 1.5 percent pay increase. City officials agreed, but said they needed time to study the issue, and approved the latest cost-of-living increase that took effect July 1.

More than half of city service employees -- 584 -- are in a position that has a starting salary of less than $30,000, according to the city's 2014-2015 pay plan.

The lowest-paid employees, such as equipment operators, park rangers and public works' crew workers, could start with a salary as low as $23,500. Other positions, such as traffic engineer technician, have starting salaries of less than $30,000 but include a pay range that goes up to $44,000 a year. (This plan excludes police and fire personnel, who are under a separate pay plan.)

While the pay plan offers minimum, mid-point and maximum pay ranges for each position, the city doesn't have a plan that gets workers from one pay grade to the next within the same position, Collier said. That means some employees who have worked for the city for 10 years could be making the same amount as a new employee hired to do the same job, but with less experience, he said.

So with each percentage increase city officials implement, workers say, the disparity between administrators' pay and that of their subordinates continues to grow.

For the employees making $30,000, this year's pay increase equals about $8.50 a week, said Robert Hart, a city librarian and member of the SEIU. But for those in mid- to upper-level management positions, that 1.5 percent increase makes more of an impact, he said.

"Percentage wages don't work," he said. "When you can't afford to pay your bills, there's a problem."

About 1,020 employees not in mid- to upper-level management make an average salary of $33,800. That's about $27,000 less than the 130 employees in those management positions or engineers or attorneys, whose average salary is $61,000.

The highest-paid administrators in the general pay plan can make between $82,000 and $150,000.

Human Resources Director Todd Dockery said the SEIU and other employees will be part of the discussions throughout the year as officials try to decide what route to take to make pay more equitable. Officials plan to begin the study in September, after a study of pay disparity within the Chattanooga Fire Department is complete.

Mayor Andy Berke earlier this year signed a memorandum of understanding with the SEIU that broadens employee engagement in wage and personnel decisions.

Several members of conservative groups have been critical of the agreement.

Councilman Larry Grohn, who is a Chattanooga Tea Party member, said he is against taxpayer money going to union representatives, but he does agree the city should re-examine employees' current pay plan.

It's a problem when city service employees don't have a clear path to improve themselves and stay in low-paying jobs for years, he said.

"You get entry-level positions when you're unskilled; well, we want you to get more skilled because that's more beneficial to the city and increases your salary," Grohn said.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at jlukachick@timefreepress.com or 423-757-6659.