13 Investigates: Down 80 workers, Houston solid waste supervisors say they're overworked, underpaid

Friday, January 6, 2023
13 Investigates: Down 80 workers, Houston solid waste supervisors say they're overworked, underpaid
EMBED <>More Videos

Houston's Solid Waste Department racked up $7.5 million in overtime this past year, but none of it went to supervisors despite working the same long hours as drivers.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- When the City of Houston solid waste supervisors pull into work by 6 a.m., they already feel like they're behind.

"You go in knowing that you are short on equipment, that's trucks, and are short on manpower also, and that's drivers," former solid waste supervisor Patricc Fortiori told 13 Investigates. "The routes are far too large for any one person to do."

With 82 job openings at the Houston Solid Waste Department - and about 100 employees leaving every year - the city's trash and recycling collectors are overworked.

Our investigation found incentives for employees to stay at the department and consistently work long days serving the city are different for all workers despite an executive order Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner signed during the pandemic to provide relief.

13 Investigates found some hourly senior sideload operators, who work on trucks to collect trash and recycling, logged more than 1,000 hours of overtime last fiscal year, bringing their annual salary to $90,000 or $100,000, according to city payroll.

Their solid waste supervisors, who are also on the road delivering bins, checking on routes, and fielding service requests, made anywhere from $60,000 to $80,000 last year, despite working the same long hours.

In fact, supervisors tell us their work days are even longer because they have to get to work before the trucks hit the road and can't leave until the last truck is back.

"We are the ones out here doing the footwork. We are the ones that are the face of our department and must deal with hostile citizens," one current solid waste supervisor who didn't want to be identified for fear of retaliation told 13 Investigates. "After 3 p.m. it becomes volunteer time because we don't get paid for anything after 3 and when we work on Saturdays and Sundays."

13 Investigates wanted to know just how much "overtime" supervisors are working so we requested their timesheets.

The city's HR department also doesn't track the actual hours' salaried employees work in a week, and since supervisors are salaried employees, not all of them punch in and out for each shift.

But, we looked at timesheets for a dozen supervisors who did clock in and out and found they worked a combined 6,646 hours over their normal 40-hour work week during the first 10 months of 2022 - all without extra pay or any compensatory time.

Meanwhile, during this past 2022 fiscal year, 409 hourly solid waste employees worked nearly 245,000 hours in overtime, racking up $7.5 million in overtime pay, according to city data.

On a mobile device? Click here.

Compensatory time not granted

After learning about an executive order Mayor Turner signed in 2020 to address "exempt employee compensatory time," Fortiori went to a city council meeting in September, seeking answers as to why it wasn't being applied to his department.

The ordinance says, "Exempt employees, assigned to pay grades 26 and below may be eligible for compensatory time on a straight time (hour-for-hour) basis, upon the recommendation of the employee's department director and approval of the HR Director subject to the criteria authorized by the Code of Ordinances."

Solid waste supervisors are assigned a pay grade below 26 hours and are eligible for compensatory time, but told 13 Investigathey have yet to receive it.

"I'm here to ask you, why am I working 80 hours a week? Why are my colleagues working 80 hours a week in the presence of this executive order 1-61 which is supposed to supply us relief," Fortiori told council members in September. "As supervisors, if we are out there 80 hours a week, guess what? Our employees who are driving these blue trucks and green trucks, they are also out there working 60, 70 hours a week. The difference is they get paid overtime. We get no recognition. Some of them are making $90,000. I'm making $60,000."

At that meeting, council members expressed concern over the long hours and said they'd look into it.

"You're making a very good case and I certainly would like to join the conversation," Council member Carolyn Evans-Shabazz said at the September council meeting.

More than three months later, solid waste supervisors say the long hours are still an issue.

Although Fortiori said none of the council members reached out to him after the meeting, Evans-Shabazz told us she had a conversation with Solid Waste Department Director Mark Wilfalk.

"He said that they have made some changes, but of course, nothing has been done in regards to a total resolution, but certainly they're looking at and actually implementing rotating schedules so that people are not even accumulating that much time again," Evans-Shabazz told 13 Investigates. "I am glad to know that they are making some adjustments to help people because if you're working all the time, where is your quality of life? And certainly we don't want people to overwork themselves, which of course if you're working those kinds of hours, you're certainly putting yourself and your health at risk."

A current supervisor we spoke with said he tries to take a day off or use vacation when he's feeling too exhausted to safely work. But, ultimately, he said it is "not a good look for the city and our department."

"They try to rotate us so we could get a day off here and there, but the following week we are right back to working six to seven days a week without any compensation," the supervisor said.

13 Investigates asked the city to speak with Director Wilfalk or another city leader about these concerns and what is being done to address them. The city declined an interview, instead sending a statement from City Attorney Arturo Michel, who said "the spirit of (the) Executive Order is to encourage department directors to remain flexible in accommodating employees in times of increased workloads."

We sent the city a list of questions asking for more information on what led up to the long hours for supervisors and what is being done to address the concerns of about a dozen current and former supervisors we spoke with, but they didn't answer our questions.

We also wanted to know if the city believes supervisors and drivers are getting enough time off in between shifts. Timesheets show supervisors, at times, working from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and back at work at 6 a.m. the next day.

"On occasions, I have fallen asleep going home. On occasions, I have fallen asleep going to work before I even get there, so I know what the drivers go through," Fortiori said. "You have drivers and supervisors that come to the conclusion, it is not worth it. ... and they have no interest in resolving this at all."

Michel emphasized the word "may" in the following statement sent to 13 Investigates: "The executive order states that 'exempt employees, assigned to pay grades 26 and below, may be eligible for compensatory time on a straight time (hour-for-hour) basis, upon the recommendation of the employee's department director and approval of the HR Director subject to the criteria authorized by the Code of Ordinances.' We appreciate all of the hardworking employees of this city and appreciate the sacrifices they make to serve our residents, even during emergency response and declared disasters. The matter of employee compensation and benefits is an internal issue and one that is regularly addressed by our Human Resource Department and with HOPE as the municipal employee bargaining unit representative."

On Tuesday, Houston Attorney Tony Buzbee, who represents at least seven current and former solid waste supervisors, sent a demand letter to Mayor Turner and Director Wilfalk asking to discuss compensatory time for the supervisors.

"This is a case that should be resolved short of litigation, because it is the right thing to do," the letter says. "These loyal and dedicated workers are supervisors and superintendents. Despite many obstacles, they have continued to work hard and go above and beyond for the City of Houston. Yet, they have not been paid as promised. Rather than file an immediate lawsuit, or seek other governmental intervention, our clients would like to sit down with the City to mediate their claims."

As of Thursday afternoon, the city had yet to respond to Buzbee.

Roberto Canales, who left the department in November 2021, said the long hours were frustrating.

"It was pretty difficult because not only are you working for free, and giving your time away for free, you have family, children and you're leaving them behind and you're going to go do this job, which you know is what they say you signed up," Canales said. "So you're over there working, doing the best you can, not getting paid for it and at the same time you're neglecting your families and other priorities at home that you can't attend to because you're working 80, 90 hours a week."

Evans-Shabazz said she's hopeful measures will be put in place to help ease the workload for supervisors.

"My heart goes out to them. ... I did talk to the director and he said a lot of this happened before he came on board, but certainly we've had a pervasive problem of personnel for quite some time," she said. "We're going to have to look at some things that can perhaps provide more money for them to be able to hire more people so that people aren't stretched so thinly."

Contact 13 Investigates

Are you a city employee with a tip for us to investigate? Fill out the form below. You can remain anonymous, but it's always helpful if you provide a way for us to contact you. (On mobile? You can open our form by tapping here.)