Greensboro city workers join state push for heat-protection rules

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charles french
Charles French, president of the Greensboro City Workers Union, speaks during a commemoration of the Memphis sanitation strike with veteran labor activists Richard Koritz (left) and William Lucy. (photo by Jordan Green)

The Greensboro City Workers Union is negotiating a heat-stress prevention policy with the city’s human-resources director, and anticipating action on a promised $15-per-hour minimum wage from a more labor-friendly city council.

Last summer, Anthony Milledge, a 52-year-old laborer with the city of Charlotte’s yard-waste division, died of a heart attack after working a 14-hour day when the temperature reached 91 degrees and the heat index reached 96.6 degrees.

Around the same time — early July — Charles Sifford, a water department employee, was driving a truck without working air conditioning and passed out. He was rushed to the hospital and treated for dehydration and heat exhaustion.

In the wake of Milledge’s death and Sifford’s injury, UE Local 150, North Carolina’s public employees’ union, launched a campaign to pressure the largest cities across the state, including Greensboro, to adopt written policies to protect workers from excessive heat.

The Greensboro City Workers Union, led by sanitation worker Charles French, met last fall with Human Resources Director Connie Hammond, who has since retired, and Safety Administrator Matt Schweitzer to discuss the union’s request. Jamiah Waterman, the new interim human-resources director, is leading negotiations for the city now that Hammond has retired.

To date, the city of Greensboro has left it up to department heads to formulate safety policies, but Waterman and Schweitzer have expressed willingness to develop a citywide policy. The draft city policy holds supervisors responsible for encouraging employees to frequently consume water, and advises employees to monitor themselves for heat-related illness. The draft policy also requires supervisors “to the extent practicable” to hold pre-shift meetings to review high-heat procedures, encourage employees to drink plenty of water and remind them of their right to “take a cool-down rest when necessary.”

The draft policy requires the city to provide at least one quart of water per employee per hour, and to stock water, ice and electrolyte drinks at the Patton Avenue service center and Water Resources Operation Center.

So far, so good.

The main sticking point to date in negotiations with the city has been the union’s request for mandated breaks that are indexed to the heat. For a heat index of 89 degrees or more, a 15-minute break would be mandated for every 45 minutes of work, while a heat index of 104 degrees or more would require a 30-minute break for every 30 minutes of work.

“That’s tough to do,” said Schweitzer, the city’s safety manager. “If you’re experiencing heat exhaustion, that 10-minute break may not do you any good. A mandated break schedule might give you a false sense of security.”

He argued that every employee will respond to heat stress differently, depending on size and fitness, and the city prefers the approach of training employees to recognize the signs of heat-related illness and encouraging them to stay hydrated instead of mandating breaks.

French said the city needs a uniform policy to protect employees. He acknowledged that city workers exposed to heat are free to take breaks whenever they feel the need, but indicated that sometimes employees push themselves too hard because of their workload.

“Employees want to get through their day so they can get out of the heat,” French said. “Because of the expansion of the city, there are days when it’s hard to get all the work done. Yes, we are adults, and when we feel ill we should take a break. Sometimes there are people who might be on medication; it creeps up on them so suddenly they had no notice. They don’t recognize I need to take a break. A city that cared about its employees would mandate breaks.”

The policy proposed by the union also calls for workers exposed to a heat index of more than 98 degrees to be sent home early with a full day’s pay. Any employees required to continue working in such conditions would receive hazard pay at 150 percent of their regular earnings.

Waterman indicated the city isn’t likely to grant that request.

“That’s not in our program,” he said.

French said the union wants to have a heat-stress prevention policy in place before summer. “If we cannot get any type of resolution from human resources,” he said, “then we will stand before city council and ask them for assistance.”

Along with protection from heat-related illness, the Greensboro City Workers Union is also working to keep pressure on the city to pay all public employees a minimum of $15 an hour. The city has committed to meeting the goal by 2020. Under the budget passed last summer, city council approved a 3 percent average merit increase for employees represented by the Greensboro City Workers Union, while approving 7.5 percent raises for sworn police and fire employees, who are represented by separate unions.

“When the city first passed [the $15 per hour by 2020] policy, they sat a year and a half and did not make any wage improvements,” French told an audience at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum during a Feb. 4 commemoration of the Memphis sanitation strike. “We had to speak out and challenge them publicly so that those working in recreation centers and elsewhere making $8 an hour got a raise. They’re now making $11.50, which is still not enough.”

“We continue to fight until they bring [up] more roster workers, part-time employees and coliseum employees to $15 an hour,” he continued. “We have skilled water-resources employees that repair broken water mains in unsafe conditions that still don’t make $15 an hour with hazard pay or on-call pay. We want and deserve $15 an hour [now] — not 2020.”

French said in an interview that the Greensboro City Workers Union is working alongside the Professional Fire Fighters of Greensboro to pressure the city into meeting the $15-per-hour target and implementing a step plan that ensures that employee pay rises according to years of service. While firefighters are already on a step plan, not all of them earn $15 per hour, so the alliance benefits them as well, French said.

French is optimistic that city council will support workers’ demand for pay improvements. Michelle Kennedy wore a Greensboro City Workers Union shirt as she celebrated her victory on election night last November. Kennedy replaced Mike Barber, a conservative Democrat who promoted the raise for police and firefighters, while Tammi Thurm ousted Tony Wilkins, the only Republican on the council.

“We believe that with the new city council that has been elected they will be a force to reach that $15 an hour this year — before the 2020 deadline,” French said.

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