REPOST- ARTICLE SOURCE:
CHAPEL HILL — Two sanitation workers, placed on paid administrative leave for reasons they say are unclear, held a news conference at Town Hall on Friday during which they accused department leaders of racism and unfair treatment.
Solid waste collectors Clyde Clark and Kerry Bigelow, on leave since Sept. 20, say they were notified in a letter that they have been placed on leave while the town conducts an investigation into complaints “regarding your behavior during work hours” that rose to the “level of a serious incident,” which requires investigation.
On Friday, Clark and Bigelow, both of whom work on the same solid waste collection truck, said they were never told what the incident was that led them to be placed on leave.
A third man, Stan Norwood, a veteran transit bus driver, also joined the news conference in the wake of a three-day suspension he said he received because a rider accused him of text messaging while driving his bus.
Norwood denied the charge, but said the rider took a photograph of him looking at his phone and sent it to town officials.
“I can barely text standing still,” Norwood said, explaining he isn’t skilled enough at text messaging to do so while steering a 35-foot bus.
All three men believe the actions taken against them are retaliatory and in response to their outspokenness and involvement in the N.C. Public Service Workers Union (UE 150 Union).
“I know why we’re on administrative leave,” Bigelow said. “We’ve got the UE 150 in there and we’re very active in that.”
More specifically, Norwood said he believed his suspension is due to his efforts to get a petition signed to improve break times for drivers.
He said many drivers are forced to work eight-hour shifts with barely enough time to eat a meal or use the restroom.
“I know this is a setup to get me to shut up or to get me out of Chapel Hill Transit,” Norwood said.
In a statement, Town Manger Roger Stancil acknowledged the investigations but said the town did not have any information it could make public at this time.
“The investigation is being conducted commensurate with and appropriate to the specific issues involved in this specific case,” Stancil said. “We assess the evidence for completeness and relevance, and then weigh the evidence against the applicable legal or organizational standard before reaching a conclusion.
Stancil added that allegations or indications of employee misconduct are uncommon, but are taken seriously when the do occur.
“Such matters are investigated thoroughly and fairly, and we act deliberately to make informed conclusions,” Stancil said.
Meanwhile, Clark and Bigelow also contend that they have been passed over for promotion in favor of less qualified white workers. And both have complained about unsafe working conditions and other management actions they consider unfair.
They say managers in their department play favorites when it comes to assigning workers to routes, with younger, white workers getting preferred routes over veteran African-American workers.
“It’s not what you do on the job,” Bigelow said. “It’s all about if you are in the clique and buddy-buddy with the supervisors. It used to be you go get a job, do a good job and they would want to promote you.”
Along with being placed on leave, Bigelow and Clark were banned from Town Hall and all other town facilities unless their presence was needed for business reasons or to participate in the investigative process.
Clark, a Chapel Hill resident, said that means he is effectively prohibited from visiting a town park or any other town facility which he supports with his tax dollars.
“Me being a town-paying citizen and not allowed to go on town property, I can’t even ride a street bus. I can’t even go to a park, and I have no way to contest it.”
Clark said he doesn’t buy into the notion that workers should simply be glad to have a job because the economy is in a tailspin.
“The slaves had jobs, too,” Clark said. “You want a job with dignity and respect.”
The three men were surrounded by supporters during their news conference at Town Hall.
Sign-carrying members of the UE Local 150, Chapel Hill Carrboro NAACP Labor Committee and UNC Student Action with Workers, showed up to offer support.
Nathan Ette Mayo, chairman of the municipal council of UE 150, said the union will stand firm with the workers and return to Town Hall every Friday until the matter is resolved fairly.
“Management has created a hostile work environment in an attempt to stop workers from filing grievances concerning health and safety problems, discrimination and unfair treatment in the department,” Mayo said.
She added that all residents of Chapel Hill should be concerned about the treatment of town workers.
“While the citizens of Chapel Hill may be progressive and forward-thinking, clearly some of those managers they hire to do their business and run their departments are not,” Mayo said.