City leaders may give some Durham employees smaller bonuses than planned so they can give lower-paid workers a bigger boost.
After a long and tense meeting Thursday, the Durham City Council asked City Manager Wanda Page to come back with three new options for distributing $6.5 million in one-time bonus money to roughly 2,655 city employees.
The delay comes after sanitation workers held a six-day strike this month and returned to City Hall Thursday to say the city’s initial bonus offer was not enough.
“We think it’s a slap in the face,” said Antonio Smith.
“That’s not close enough to what we asked for. We were very disappointed,” said Herman Moore.
“All we want is to be treated fair,” added union steward John Burwell.
Smith, Burwell and Moore are all longtime employees, and each was raised in Durham. But as the Bull City grew too expensive, they’ve been pushed to the peripheries of the Triangle. Smith moved to Alamance County; Burwell is in Roxboro; and Moore lives in Granville County.
“I could use it. I could pay a couple bills and just have a little extra change,” Moore said about the bonus. “But I’m more concerned about the raises.”
Can the city afford $5,000 bonuses?
The workers’ two biggest requests were for immediate $5,000 bonuses for all general employees (non-management staff outside the police and fire departments) and pay raises that were skipped during the pandemic.
Last week, Page released her counteroffer:
$3,000 bonuses for employees making less than $57,000 a year
$2,500 bonuses for employees making $57,000 to $90,000 a year
$2,000 bonuses for employees making more than $90,000 a year
$1,000 bonuses for part-time employees
A total cost of roughly $6.5 million.
Page explained Thursday that that spending more than her recommendation could deplete the city’s “rainy day fund” below the targeted 25% of its annual budget — “best practice for a city of our size,” the budget director said. That could downgrade Durham’s AAA credit rating and increase interest rates on bonds, costing taxpayers more when the city borrows money.
“As a longtime city employee, it has always been important to me that we fairly pay our employees,” Page said in a video message released by the city.
“Equally important though, is that we use Durham’s tax dollars in a responsible way that enables us to continue to meet emergencies as well as our ongoing needs as our city grows in the coming years,” she continued.
Mayor Pro Tem Mark-Anthony Middleton defended the city manager Thursday.
“She has worked hard and this team has worked hard. The numbers you see today is what it looks like to run a city,” Middleton said. “You absolutely deserve the money. But we’re doing math as a city, not just for right now.”
“I support unions, and I’m down with strikes,” Middleton added, but the work stoppage left the city with no choice but to use temporary contact workers. “We had to respond in emergency mode. ... Nobody was trying to replace you or disrespect you.”
Council member Leo Williams took it a step further, saying workers were not helped when organizers turned to a strike instead of negotiations.
“You also have to be careful about who puts the crown on your head,” Williams said. “Please don’t be a vessel for someone who doesn’t really care.”
Mayor Elaine O’Neal said she sympathized with the workers and wanted to find the most money for the most workers. But council member Jillian Johnson reminded her the city had limited savings to apply to bonuses.
“I don’t want to pretend there’s magic money out there,” Johnson said and suggested that staff bring back three new distribution scenarios for the council to consider in two weeks.
O’Neal looked around the council dais and found at least six of the seven members in favor of that. The scenarios could include at least $1,000 bonuses for part-time workers, who council member Javiera Caballero said included many Parks and Recreation Department child care providers, who are are already underpaid as a profession.
“Be patient. We’re getting there,” O’Neal told the workers, whose numbers had dwindled as the afternoon dragged on. “We made a whole lot of progress today.”
Playing catch up
The workers are back on the job after refusing to load up the city’s trucks for six days in early September, just after Labor Day. A GoFundMe to cover their lost wages has exceeded $51,000.
Bins sat at the curb during the strike, and workers are still playing catch up when it comes to yard waste.
“Last Friday’s yard-waste bins are still in the street all around us, creating quite an obstacle course for the street-sweeper that came through this morning,” American Village resident John Norris said in an email Tuesday.
The yard waste crews had been helping retrieve the trash and recycling first, union steward and 23-year employee John Burwell said.
“It was piling up. By the end of the week, we’ll be caught up, the guys I’m working with,” Smith said.
Pay raises to be taken up in 2024
The Solid Waste Department has 83 front-line collection positions for garbage, recycling, yard waste and bulky item collections, nine of them vacant, city spokesperson Beverly Thompson said.
The hiring range for Solid Waste collectors is $39,141 to $57,953 annually, according to the city. For drivers, it’s $45,493 to $70,012.
That’s anywhere from $19 to $34 an hour, which aligns with figures shared in interviews with The News & Observer.
The bonus money will come from the city’s reserves, or “fund balance,” which leaders only use for one-time expenses. (Other items on the list this year include speed bumps tree stump removal, new cell phones for the City Council and EMS training for the community safety department.)
That’s why there’s no talk yet of raising salaries. That discussion will begin in January, leaders promised, after a consultant hands in a pay study and when the annual budget process is in its earliest stages. The budget restarts every year on July 1.
Many community members have attached notes of support to their bins, and dozens of residents carried signs into City Hall on Monday and Thursday — “Wage Increase Now!” “Fair Pay for City Workers” and “Progressive Cities Need Progressive Policy.”
“The citizens have been behind us 100%,” Moore said.