Garbage sits on curb Wednesday as Durham city workers ‘stand our ground’

Antonio Smith has Bull City tattooed on his arm, but he doesn’t live in Durham.

Smith has worked for the city since he graduated high school, the past nine years in the Solid Waste Department. When it came time to buy a house, though, Smith couldn’t afford to stay in Durham, even while working a second job at a parking deck. He picked out a place in Alamance County instead.

“We want to be able to live in this city,” Smith said. “Retirement is not in our future if we stay. That’s not going to happen. Not here.”

So now, each morning, Smith drives 30 minutes from Haw River to pick up trash and recycling in the city where he was born and raised.

But not on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, Smith and dozens of others refused to load up their trucks at 6 a.m. to go on collection routes. Christopher Benjamin, a longtime employee in the Solid Waste Management Department, said 40 trucks should have been out on the road that morning, but none went out.

“We love Durham. We don’t want to leave,” said Jimmy Ivey, a 23-year city employee whose second job is with a Chapel Hill cleaning service. “We’ve got to stand our ground.”

Durham city employees outside the Solid Waste Operations Facility, where they refused to load their trucks on Sept. 6, 2023. They are calling for better pay.

The demands

The workers were hoping to draw city leaders out to discuss demands made at a Tuesday night City Council meeting. They are asking for:

  • An immediate $5,000 bonus

  • Pay raises, including providing step increases that were withheld during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • All temporary workers to be hired full-time

Dante Strobino, a representative of UE Local 150, the N.C. Public Service Workers Union, said it would cost $8 million to $10 million to give bonuses to all the city’s general employees. That includes non-management staff in departments such as Solid Waste, Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and more. It does not include police and fire.

Vincent Daniels works in stormwater maintenance for the Public Works Department. (“We keep the fresh water fresh,” he explained.)

His family has long roots in Durham, but Daniels spent his life in Washington, D.C. The district’s Water and Sewer Authority paid him $90,000. The city of Durham pays him, a one-year employee, $45,000.

“So now I’m doing more of the work for half of the pay,” he said. “We’re out here in 100-degree weather in the summertime, 20-degree weather in the wintertime.”

‘Everything’s gone up but our pay’

At 57, Daniels counts less than eight years until retirement. He moved down when his mom got ill. She died two years ago, but now he’s met someone and want to stay in Durham. However, money is a growing concern.

“Everything’s gone up but our pay,” Daniels said.

Strobino said sanitation workers’ wages have gone up 15% since 2019, but calculates that inflation has driven the cost of living up 23% in the same time frame: “Effectively an 8% pay cut.”

The city’s website has a continuous job posting for a solid waste technician that lists pay between $40,099 and $61,720 annually. That’s about $19 to $30 an hour.

“I feel we should start paying our drivers at least $35 an hour,” Benjamin said Tuesday night. “Because we go over and beyond every day.”

“We do the jobs that most people won’t,” Smith said Wednesday.

Durham City Manager Wanda Page and Mayor Elaine O’Neal speak after O’Neal delivered her State of the City address Monday, April 17, 2023 at Durham City Hall.

Workers to address City Council again Thursday

City Manager Wanda Page and Deputy City Manager Bertha Johnson drove out to the Solid Waste Operations Facility during the work stoppage Wednesday morning.

The pair listened to complaints about the cost of living and not feeling appreciated, fielding questions for several hours in a small auditorium at the facility north of downtown.

“I value you. I respect you,” Page said. “But I am not going to make promises I can’t keep.”

Johnson said they were in the midst of a pay study, which would be complete by January. They’ll then be able to recommend pay increases to the City Council ahead of next year’s budget, which must be approved by July 1.

“Nothing’s going to happen before then,” Johnson said. “We don’t have the authority to change the current budget. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t write $5,000 checks today.”

Chris Copeland, a city employee for three years, said he didn’t feel like the discussion got them anywhere. He plans to join dozens of others at City Hall for the next City Council meeting, at 1 p.m. Thursday.

“We gotta stand strong. We can’t crack,” Copeland said.

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