Union and mayor hash out safety concerns for Little Rock employees

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Little Rock public works employees will see their shifts divided in an effort to reduce the number of workers heading to job sites across the city during the coronavirus outbreak.

The moves come after Thursday meetings between mayor Frank Scott Jr. and leaders of AFSCME Local 994, which represents sanitation workers, street crews, and fleet mechanics.

Union leaders had been angry that their initial requests to lay out safety protocols went unanswered for a couple days.

“As far as transparency, it’s about as clear as mud at night,” said Johnny Banks, chief steward of the union and a traffic signal technician. 

The limbo left many workers in a dilemma as essential employees.

“Do you go to work possibly take the opportunity to lose your job or do you stay at home and keep yourself safe?” said Clarence E. Elliott, the local union president.

Before Thursday’s meetings, public-facing employees felt they were contradicting tough social distancing measures put in place by the mayor.

“There’s no concern for us,” Banks said Wednesday. “Just throw four or five of them in the truck as long as we can get the job done.”

By the following evening, the department’s bosses and the mayor showed they had been listening.

“We’ve been doing a lot of work to implement safety procedures for all of our employees,” said Jon Honeywell, director of the Dept. of Public Works. 

Those efforts include closing up break rooms, disinfecting shops and vehicles, and splitting up the workforce into an “A” shift and a “B” shift.

“The folks that work out in our street operations department, we’ve gone to separate shifts where we have half the employees come in at one time and half coming in at a later time,” Honeywell said. The plan was originally set to begin Monday, but the mayor ordered it implemented right away.

The union calls that reasonable, especially since those not working will still get paid. All public employees will also get two weeks of “hazard leave” to use when the outbreak clears.

“We all were deemed essential, which is something that we are aware,” said Banks, while acknowledging the mayor’s busy schedule during the crisis. “The city does need the employees. We make the city run.”

“We are the heart and soul of the city. We are the ones that keep the city rolling,” said Elliott.

On Wednesday, the city board pushed through budget cuts in the wake of the pandemic that included furloughs for some part-time employees, but Honeywell said the part-time staffers in his department would continue to have a job and health benefits.

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