The Winston-Salem Sanitation Department and its discontents

by Jordan Green

Curtis McLaurin, a driver for the Winston-Salem Sanitation Department, steered truck 459 into the parking lot at Cedar Cove Condominiums off Peace Haven Road as part of his regular route last month. McLaurin and the two laborers on his truck, Lonzelle Lewis and Todd Samuels, unloaded orange carts from the truck and began to retrieve bags of garbage from compartments under outside staircases.

“This is where you get your bee stings and rats,” McLaurin observed while sliding an orange cart onto the tipper to deposit its contents in the compactor.

The city of Winston-Salem mandated curbside trash pickup in 2010 after a five-year period of voluntary participation. Under the new arrangement, the majority of residents are required to wheel their garbage out to the curb in city-issued green carts for collection once a week and then return the carts to a discrete place beside their house. No longer, for the most part, do laborers walk up to side doors and into backyards, and come back to the trucks toting bags of garbage.

The new process is streamlined: The laborers wheel carts from the curb to the back of the truck and set them on tippers, which mechanically heave the garbage into the compactor. The new process saves time and money for the city, and lessens the degree to which laborers must directly handle garbage. Winston-Salem was one of the last cities in North Carolina to do away with universal backyard service, a remnant of a more paternalistic era. Greensboro adopted a form of curbside service — even more automated than what now prevails in Winston-Salem — in the early 1990s.

To ease the transition, the Winston-Salem City Council adopted a liberal exemption policy, requiring residents who want to receive backyard service to merely submit an application attesting that no one in the household is able to move the cart to the curb. The city currently provides backyard service to about 2,700 households that have submitted applications — out of a total of about 92,000 households. Adding blanket exemptions for multifamily communities, about 5 percent of households still receive backyard service. Other cities across the state, in comparison, provide backyard service to about 1 percent of households, City Manager Lee Garrity told council members in a March 4 memo.

The lingering practice of backyard service is a source of resentment for some employees. Not only do they face greater exposure to odors, insects and rodents but they’re also more likely to have to encounter dogs and angry customers when they have to set foot on homeowners’ property. They often have to walk through wet grass and uneven and sloping ground, increasing the chances of injury. In at least one case, a verbal altercation between an employee and a homeowner arising from a dispute over whether the privilege was being abused resulted in an employee’s dismissal.

“With the backyard service it’s a situation where we are in the line of fire because you’re fumbling around on somebody’s private property,” said Angelia Byrd, who worked for the department until last year. “If you’re new, you don’t know where the can is.

“It’s just wear and tear on the upper body,” she added. “That’s why you have a lot of people who go for knee replacements. You have injuries to elbows, wrists and shoulders.”

The perceived indignities of backyard service and resentment that employees are held to a higher standard of behavior than residential customers were among several grievances that prompted a handful of current and former employees to address city council on Feb. 18. Others include allegedly unsafe working conditions and a sense that management is not sensitive or responsive to health and safety issues that arise, an allegation that a supervisor attempted to pressure an employee into changing a statement for a disciplinary action and forged employee signatures, and a sense that the low pay received by sanitation workers is not equal to the dirty, unpleasant and physically demanding conditions of the work.

The employees’ comments to council followed an investigation into many of the same allegations by Gardenia Henley, a retired auditor with the US State Department who is challenging Allen Joines for mayor this year. Assistant City Manager Greg Turner is investigating the concerns raised by the employees for the city manager’s office and will report his findings to city council in closed session. He said he expected to complete his investigation in about a week.

At Chrisfield apartments, located across Peace Haven Road from Calvary Baptist Church, the laborers pushed the orange carts heaping with garbage bags across the grass. They had to walk down grassy slopes through hedgerows from behind a line of apartments.

“You may go down these hills, but you got to come back up pulling a cart behind you,” McLaurin said. “It’s heavy, wet and slick.”

McLaurin contends there is adequate room at Chrisfield apartments and a handful of other multi-family housing complexes on his route for Dumpsters. In an interview last week, Turner and Sanitation Director Johnnie Taylor responded that Dumpster service is not feasible in the communities receiving blanket exemptions because the larger front-loading trucks need more overhead clearance and more room to make turns. McLaurin flatly disputed that explanation at several communities on his route.

At Cedar Lake Trail condominiums off Country Club Road, laborers are required to drag carts over uneven patches of ground between the sidewalk and the parking lot. While servicing one unit, Lewis’ cart wobbled, but he caught it and righted it before it fell over.

The driver and two laborers wheeled the carts to the back of the truck and slid them onto the tipper. As they fed the compactor, the mass of garbage was more than the vessel could digest and it burped out a glass beer bottle, some chicken bones, cornbread and assorted contents, along with a spray of garbage water. The bottle shattered on the parking lot.

The mishap didn’t faze McLaurin, who pulled out a broom and dustpan and started sweeping up the mess, but at the next unit he serviced he was angered to find garbage bags piled on top of a can in the compartment under the staircase.

“We’re not supposed to get that,” he said.

Then, he spotted a translucent, lightweight bag of kitty litter and feces in the bottom of another can.

“We’re not taking that,” he said. “I’m calling that in.”

A citizens’ budget review and efficiency committee has recommended that the city revise the policy on exemptions to require residents to obtain a doctor’s statement “attesting to their inability to roll their cart to the curb,” bringing it in line with Greensboro and other cities across the state. The committee estimates the city could save $114,000 through the change, and eliminate a crew.

One afternoon in March 2012, Angelia Byrd’s truck approached the residence of Chandra Sherrill on Village Place in a middle-income neighborhood off of Old Salisbury Road. Byrd recalled that she watched Victor Bethea, one of the laborers, struggle to move one of Sherrill’s cans down the driveway to the truck. She noted that the can was not covered with a lid — a violation — and called out to Bethea to tell him that the garbage was too heavy and the resident needed to have a cart. By that time Chandra Sherrill and her daughter, Jasmaine, had come outside.

By most accounts, including that of Deputy City Manager Derwick Paige — who upheld a termination decision against Byrd — Chandra Sherrill cursed Byrd when she heard the sanitation driver say her garbage was too heavy. For her part, Chandra Sherrill testified at Byrd’s appeal hearing that she did not initiate the conflict, and merely instructed the laborers to take her trash and then told them that she was going to call their supervisor to ensure that the job was done.

The content, tone and intensity of Sherrill’s verbalization varies significantly in other accounts.

“I got out of the truck to go help Vic get the garbage,” laborer John Clowers testified at the hearing. “The lady was hollering, ‘What this black bitch talking about? She don’t get my garbage? If you don’t get it, you gonna come back and get it.’” Bethea recalled that Sherrill was screaming, “We don’t need no F-ing cart. I got a father that’s disabled. And y’all need to get my trash. Y’all gonna get it one way or another.”

Meanwhile, Byrd had called her supervisor, Darrell Moody, to report the incident, and he instructed her to go ahead and collect the resident’s garbage.

“We went to get the garbage like the driver told us to,” Clowers continued. “And we came on out with the garbage, and got in the truck. And the lady called her all kind of ‘black bitches.’” At Paige’s prompting, Clowers clarified that by “the lady” he meant the resident, or “citizen” — the term of currency in the sanitation department.

Clowers’ testimony, along with that of Chandra Sherrill and her daughter, provided the basis for Paige’s finding sustaining a violation of abusive and threatening language against Byrd. Clowers testified that Byrd got out of the truck, but didn’t go into the yard.

“And she kind of got a little upset, too, about her going off the way she did,” Clowers said. “She said, ‘Bitch, come out the yard’… ‘I’ll kill you’ — that’s what she said.”

Byrd maintains that what she actually said in response to Sherrill was, “Ms. Lady, I am not going to be too many more of your bitches.”

McLaurin, who has a history of advising fellow employees and informally bringing concerns to City Manager Lee Garrity, recalled that Byrd, Bethea and Clowers told him about the incident. McLaurin said Clowers told him that Byrd “didn’t do anything.”

“He said they had to tell Byrd to go back in the truck,” McLaurin recalled. “She didn’t cuss the lady. He said Byrd told her she’s not going to keep being her bitches. I was shocked to hear that John changed his statement.”

On April 16, Byrd received notification from Moody that she was being suspended and recommended for dismissal.

Moody questioned Clowers at Byrd’s appeal hearing.

“You practically told me that you, Ms. Byrd and Victor had talked, and y’all talked about the incident, and that y’all came together and you said, well, you’re going to tell one story.”

Clowers initially indicated that he didn’t understand what Moody was saying.

“That y’all came together — Ms. Byrd and you and Victor,” Moody repeated, “and y’all was talking about getting together and telling one story.”

“Right,” Clowers said. On May 3, as Byrd’s case worked through the appeals process, Moody called Bethea in for a meeting.

Moody told Byrd, as documented in an audio recording obtained by YES! Weekly that he had some “serious,” “real” and “solid” information about the incident that had taken place at the Village Place residence, and he wanted some information from Bethea, too.

“You know her probably better than I do now,” Moody said. “You already know the allegation of what she done. And just to bring you up to speed of what I know, I feel like you — I feel like you — after what I tell you, I think you probably tell me something that I need to know.

“Whatever relationship y’all got, bro, you think about you,” Moody continued. “Hear me when I say this: You think about you. I don’t care what kind of hold you think she got on you, she ain’t got it, bro. As long as you got your family and you moving forward — it means a whole lot, bro.”

Eventually, Moody got around to saying that Clowers had told him that Byrd had, in fact, cursed and had said that Bethea should have heard it, too.

“Your statement ain’t solid,” Moody said.

“It ain’t. It ain’t solid.”

“You’re telling me my statement ain’t solid?” Bethea asked.

“You’ve got two options right now,” Moody said. “You’ve got two options, man. That’s going to be you go back to that statement; you give me the right statement. Or I’m going to go ahead and make my own statement by paperwork.”

Bethea said he wasn’t going to change his statement because what he reported was what he had heard. Moody became increasingly impatient as Bethea refused to buckle. Wrapping up the meeting, he said, “I’m getting ready to go up top, man. I’m getting ready to do some paperwork. I’m going to get with you in a little bit with this paperwork, man.” His words trailed off for a moment and then he concluded, “But I’m getting ready to do some paperwork. And I’ll be with you in a — I’ll be with you in a few. All right? All right, doc.”

Moody did not return calls for this story. Byrd reported the exchange to Paige and several other members of the management team, including Deputy Sanitation Director Randy Britton, adding, “Victor, since that incident occurred, Victor stayed two weeks without work. Since he would not retract his statement against me [sic] he stayed on the yard every day for a week and a half just sitting there.”

The department, as a policy and practice, “would in no way say that a supervisor would coerce anyone to say anything,” Sanitation Director Johnnie Taylor said last week. He added that he interviewed 16 employees under Moody’s leadership to ask about a similar allegation of forging employee signatures, and found it odd that none of them had mentioned the supervisor pressuring someone to change a statement.

“We’ll do the investigation, and if we find that the employee — that being the supervisor — did something wrong, we will address that,” Assistant City Manager Greg Turner said. “But I can’t tell you what that is. If we do something disciplinary, that information would be restricted by the statutes.”

On the related matter of the alleged signature forgeries, Byrd informed Paige and other members of management staff during her appeal hearing that Moody forged Bethea’s signature on a statement.

During the hearing, Britton cross-examined Bethea.

“Do you recall meeting with Mr. Moody to render a statement a statement?” Britton asked.

“Yes,” Bethea responded. “And can I ask why you did not provide a written statement, but rather dictated your statement to Mr. Moody on the 29th of March?” Britton asked. “Because I have a signed copy of that statement here.”

“You have a signed where I signed it?” Bethea asked, expressing surprise.

“Is this your signature?” Britton asked, presenting the document to Bethea.

“No, sir,” Bethea said. While Bethea said the signature was not his, he confirmed that the content of the statement “for the most part” reflected what he had told Moody. Considering that Bethea’s version of events supported Byrd’s position and that the document was dated March 29, it is likely not the “paperwork” Moody referenced during the May 3 meeting.

Assistant City Manager Greg Turner said that after the allegation was raised in Henley’s investigation, management interviewed employees about it and “nobody said they were aware of anyone forging anything.” That information was forwarded to Garrity in a memo on Feb. 7.

Two weeks later, Bethea identified himself to city council during a public speakers segment of the meeting, as Garrity took notes at Mayor Allen Joines’ direction.

“In reference to Ms. Byrd I was the person that they forged his name on false accusations about her that I did not state or did not write a statement to,” Bethea said.

That should not have happened, Taylor indicated in an interview last week.

“For a supervisor to manufacture a statement without the employee’s consent or to sign their name as if they are the employee is not an acceptable practice in the sanitation department or any other department in the city,” he said.

Bethea declined to comment for this story, and Clowers could not be reached. Sherrill could not be reached for comment.

“In general terms, if you are evaluating the credibility of people making comments, you would evaluate, you would study their body language, you would study their comments, you evaluate those against the comments of other individuals and their body language and their credibility,” Turner said last week. “And then you would also evaluate your experience and history with the individuals who are providing the information. And then you have to make the best decision on which version of events you think was correct.”

Donald Gore, a sanitation driver with 28 years of experience with the department, said he believes management made the wrong call.

“They fired the girl for taking up for herself,” he said. “They do not give us any kind of backup. If we go out and a homeowner comes after us in a derogatory way, we just have to go ahead and do our job. If we stand up for ourselves, we get written up. They retaliated and fired this girl.

“I have not seen a man that works as diligently and hard as she did,” he added. “They terminated because she said she wasn’t going to be too many of whatever she told her.”

Donald Gore’s wife, Mary, addressed council members on Feb. 18, standing beside her husband. She told them her husband had suffered a stroke on the job, and that she had personally picked him up at the sanitation yard and driven him to the emergency room to get proper care.

“Now my thing is all men are created equal, but do they still get the equality when it comes down to emergency care, equipment and everything?” she asked. “They’re fathers, they’re husbands, and just like you want to go home intact to your families, I want my husband to come home intact, too.”

Donald Gore told YES! Weekly that on June 21, 2006 he suffered a minor stroke while maneuvering his truck down an alleyway.

“When I got the call from my husband, he was talking garbled,” Mary Gore said. “I said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ He said, ‘Baby, I’m okay.’” She pronounced the words like a person in a stupor speaking with a mouthful of rags.

“I jumped in the car and drove all the way over from Indiana Avenue to the city yard,” Gore continued. “He said, ‘Baby, I’m okay.’ In a stroke every minute is vital. ‘I’m taking you to the hospital.’ I took him to the emergency room. They immediately admitted him. They kept him for a week.”

Assistant City Manager Greg Turner said last week that he is still investigating the matter.

“There were a couple times when it was really hot outside,” Mary Gore recalled. “I opened the door. He fell through the door onto the floor. I said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ This happened on two or three occasions. He told me there was no air conditioning on his truck. Now, he has air conditioning on his truck. But there’s a few trucks that don’t have it.”

The inside of the cab of a truck without air conditioning is hotter than the outside air, especially with the stop-and-go pace of collection compared to full speed on the run to the landfill when the truck’s velocity generates a breeze. Byrd said in one incident she passed out on the side of Reynolds Park Road on the verge of heatstroke and was treated by a doctor. And McLaurin said laborers have experienced heatstroke.

Taylor acknowledged in response to Henley’s investigation that not all trucks have air conditioning, but said that since 2005 the city has gradually replaced old trucks with new vehicles equipped with air conditioning.

Turner said it’s not practical to retrofit old trucks with air conditioning. New trucks cost somewhere in the range of $200,000 to $250,000, he said, and the city wants to replace its old stock with automated trucks equipped with an arm to pick up carts at curbside that can be operated by a single driver.

When pressed on how much employee safety factors — or doesn’t, as the case may be — in management’s consideration as to how quickly to update the city’s fleet, Turner responded, “The objective is to try to replace the trucks that have reached the end of their life. In terms of employee safety and health, we do make sure they have ice and water.”

For women drivers and laborers, the frustration over having to put up with abuse from residential customers is compounded by the challenge of working in a majority male setting.

“When Ms. Byrd came up, she didn’t tell you all,” McLaurin told council members on Feb. 18. “She’s been sexually harassed on the job. And that’s wrong. Yes, we’re dominantly male, but a woman has the right to be in that department just as a male [does].”

Byrd said she was repeatedly sexually harassed by a supervisor, who is now retired. She said the supervisor forced himself on her by kissing her on the jaw and on the mouth on two occasions, and that she reported it to management after the first incident. She said saw no indication that the supervisor was disciplined in any way, and felt that she did not get any resolution in the matter.

Byrd said worked with one other female driver, Carol Martin, who eventually left the department.

“I’m from Winston-Salem; I knew Robinhood Road,” Byrd said. “Carol, she came from someplace else. The guys was giving her a hard time, complaining about things she didn’t know as a beginning driver.” In one incident, Byrd said, Martin was improperly demoted from driver to laborer.

Byrd said that at first she avoided talking to Martin because, considering they were both women, she didn’t want the male supervisors to think they were conspiring.

“I saw what she was going through, but I didn’t help her,” Byrd said. “I wanted to see: Was it women or was it me? Then I seen the turmoil and the hell that she went through. I confirmed the discrimination against me I reached out on our own time. I got her number. I told her: ‘I wanted you to go through it on your own.’” Byrd said Martin told her at one point that she was so frustrated that she wanted to go home and get a gun to shoot Darrell Moody, a sanitation supervisor, and Chris Christmas, the sanitation manager for refuse collection. Several other employees also heard the threat, and Byrd said Martin was transferred out of the department as a result.

Sanitation Director Johnnie Taylor indicated in an interview last week that he does not see sexual harassment and gender discrimination as significant problems in the department.

“In my opinion, if it exists at all, it’s very minimal,” he said. “I know that you’re mentioning that situation with sexual harassment, but I have specifically dealt with that issue as far as tailgate meetings. I’ve actually addressed it myself.”

He added that employees have management’s assurance that they can report harassment without fear of retaliation.

“Sexual harassment goes both ways,” he said. “It’s not limited to a male harassing a female; it can also be a female harassing a male.

“You would agree,” Taylor added, “that both genders have the same desires at times.”

On the matter of gender discrimination, Taylor said, “I do not believe there is a serious issue there because we have females all throughout the department in supervisory roles. And even some of the entry-level positions, we have them on the curbside…. I haven’t had a lot of instances where I can recall where I’ve had a situation where somebody said to me that ‘I’m being treated differently because I’m a female.’”

Some workers at the Feb. 18 city council meeting indicated they want to be paid better. City Manager Lee Garrity said in an interview last week that the market for sanitation workers is limited to Forsyth County because, unlike police officers whose average earnings are higher, there’s little risk that sanitation workers will leave the city to go to work in Charlotte or Raleigh. The city also sets wages according to supply and demand. “If you’ve got a huge amount of applicants for jobs, which we do,” Garrity said, “that indicates you’re not too far off the market for any job.”

Garrity has received little to no encouragement from council to look at giving employees raises.

“Last year I presented a budget with a 1.5-percent pay increase, and they cut it all the way to $250,” he said. “They cut it all the way back. What did they hear from citizens? They heard, ‘Hey, I haven’t had a raise.’ Or, ‘Hey, I’m a small business, and I had to lay off employees. There haven’t been a whole lot of raises in small business. It’s weighing all that together.

“My number-one priority in the past several years has been to, as much as possible, avoid layoffs and try to preserve jobs,” he added.

Turner said he believes the sanitation employees who have publicly voiced discontent and a general sense of feeling disrespected comprise a small percentage of the department and do not represent the workforce as a whole.

“I hope all the other employees out there understand that we understand that not all the views addressed by the few people at the council meeting are representative of their views,” he said. “What I worry about is that the views of a few people will hurt the morale of our other employees.”

Donald Gore compared the job performed by a sanitation worker to what police officers experience. When police officers are dispatched on service calls they generally have a sense of what they’re dealing with. Furthermore, the city wouldn’t function long without garbage collection, Gore said.

“If I come to your can, I don’t know what I’m going to find,” he said. “If we want to be respected, I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Don’t treat us like we’re nobody.”