New Orleans City Hall (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

A group of 10 employees from New Orleans’ Department of Public Works refused to report for work Monday and told The Lens they’re initiating a strike for better wages and safer working conditions, including air conditioning in their work vehicles. The move comes a week after the City Council advanced a proposal to mandate a minimum $15 an hour wage for city contractors, but not for direct city employees.

The 10 employees gathered outside City Hall on Monday represented two-thirds of the 15 total Department of Public Works field maintenance employees that fix potholes, clean catch basins and level streets, they told The Lens. 

One of the workers, Joseph Green, said he’s been in the job for five years and currently makes $11.60 per hour. Other employees reported similar hourly wages, while some only knew the weekly take home check they receive from the city.

“I’m working for the city and bringing home a $352 check for one week,” said Eric Gardner. “Come on now.”

Gardner and other workers said their pay isn’t commensurate to what workers are getting in the private sector for similar work. Another employee, Otis Addison, said he recently got a job application accepted with Amazon with a starting pay around $16 an hour. He said he would likely leave his job with the city if wages didn’t go up. 

“This morning, a group of Department of Public Works (DPW) Maintenance employees opted to take a sick day in order to speak with infrastructure leaders about the challenges they are facing such as insufficient equipment and schedule changes with earlier start times due to warmer temperature in the summer months,” said a statement from Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office. “We will continue this open dialogue until there is a resolution and in the meantime, these employees were invited to return to work immediately.”

The strike was in part triggered by the City Council’s vote last week to advance an ordinance that would raise the minimum wage for city contractors to $15 an hour. That ordinance — which is expected to go to a final vote on Thursday — would not cover direct city employees, who make as little as $11.21 an hour, the city told The Times Picayune/New Orleans Advocate

Although several council members supported a $15 an hour wage for direct city employees as well, the council doesn’t have the direct authority to make that happen. Pay changes for most city workers need to be approved by the city’s Civil Service Commission, an independent board that approves city personnel policies and pay plans. 

Workers told The Lens that on top of the wage issues, they also had issues with their work vehicles, including a lack of air conditioning. 

“It’s a safety issue,” Gardner said. “It’s so hot out there. We’re dealing with asphalt that will burn your skin off. We gotta get in the hot truck, get in the hot sun and work and get back in the hot truck.”

Employees reported other issues with the vehicles as well.

“The seatbelts don’t work, the windows don’t roll down, the brake lights don’t work,” said Darryl Eggerson. 

Toinette Johnson, another employee, said that they also needed protective glasses for working with asphalt and masks for dealing with fumes while cleaning out the city’s drainage system. 

Workers told The Lens that they had called out of work on Monday and would be using paid leave days to sustain the strike. It’s unclear how long it will last, but several of the workers described their precarious financial situations and the desire to get back to work quickly. 

“We still need to work,” Green said. 

Three of the striking employees met with Ramsey Green, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer for Infrastructure, on Monday morning. Johnson said that Green seemed generally amenable to their safety concerns and wage demands, but that they weren’t ready to return to work just yet. 

“They asked us to go back to work today. We told them no.”

Johnson was part of a similar, short-lived Department of Public Works strike in 2018 to demand higher wages. She said that experience is making her hesitant to return to work so quickly. 

“We’re going to talk about going back tomorrow, because they told us last time they were gonna get us pay raises and then nothing happened. So we’re taking it one day at a time.”

Johnson said she briefly spoke to Mayor LaToya Cantrell on Monday, and was expecting another call from her later today. 

“The Cantrell administration has continually demonstrated its commitment to the safety and well-being of its employees through unprecedented challenges including the COVID-19 pandemic, a massive economic downturn, as well as eight storms that placed New Orleans in the cone of uncertainty,” Cantrell’s office said in a statement. “Our DPW Maintenance men and women provide critical city services from filling potholes to clearing catch basins. We want to ensure that they feel safe, valued and that they have the tools and resources necessary to do this important work.”

The public works employees were joined on Monday by Ben Zucker, director of Step Up Louisiana, as well as a representative from the New Orleans City Workers Organizing Committee, Lily McNee, a city worker with the Department of Safety and Permits. 

“We support their demands for better wages and humane working conditions,” McNee said. “No one should be treated like this, especially employees of the City of New Orleans.”

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...