February 2023 - Jeremy Cramer
Operators – What We Do and What We Get Paid
I hope everyone had a great holiday season and that you are enjoying the Wisconsin winter. I write this article to bring to light something important to our operators. Are operators wages appropriate for what they are doing? More importantly I want to talk a little on how our employer(s) and/or our profession impact the wages. My team and our municipality recently went through a disappointing compensation and wage study. Just prior to Christmas break we were given the results of the study. I wish I could say it was a nice Christmas present for my team, but that is not the case.
Many of you have gone through these studies. The firm that did our study for our city did not adequately address the dangers that Wastewater employees face on a daily basis, and it did not adequately address or give points/credit for the impacts (immediate and future) of critical decisions made. One would think pay grades should be based or impacted by the level of critical thinking and decisions made daily and the dangers worked in.
Everyone in the profession knows that the job of a wastewater operator is unique. Unique in the aspect that this position requires a very complex skill set and requires working around dangers. The critical thinking involved and required in this position is different than many other departments in a city. The operator needs to understand complex biological reactions, complex chemical reactions, complex engineering drawings, complex electrical drawings, complex instrumentation and controls, operation of complex equipment, operation of complex processes, complex maintenance procedures, complex lab procedures, and work in in hazardous conditions and in inclement weather. One thing that really sets this position apart from many city positions is that it clearly impacts public health and safety. This needs to be accounted for in a compensation study. That key piece is never accounted for, not for wastewater employees (always accounted for the police and fire). Another key piece never accounted for are the dangers we work in on a daily basis. Again, some departments like police, fire, and electric utility that is recognized and gets accounted for in the final wage. Our profession talks about it, but is everyone making sure that it gets accounted for in wage studies?
Wastewater is connected to every home and business in a city. Wastewater flows in our collection systems and to our wastewater plants for treatment every second of every day. Wastewater conveyance, equipment, and processes do not stop. Other city departments shut down for the weekend, for a holiday, or for inclement weather. When other departments are told to go home with dangerous or inclement weather on the way, our departments need to stay and typically get pretty busy. The wastewater conveyance system and the treatment plant, along with the operators, do not take off for these times. It is not possible. That needs to be accounted for in wages.
The reality is that these studies typically focus hard and put a lot of emphasis on two key aspects, level of education and number of employees overseen. Yes, important, but missing the mark. It should be equally important in these studies the level of critical thinking needed and the level of impacts (health and safety and dollars) of those decisions. The operator is making decisions that impact all people in a community. The wastewater operator is put into situations that could cause death, cause millions of dollars of damage, cause residents to become ill and sick, or cause tens of thousands of dollars of fines. The wage studies that are typically done, do not address the operator’s job or the criticality of the daily decisions made. Operators are making multi-faceted decisions that have critical impacts on many levels. A wastewater operator must think critically and two to three steps ahead on all decisions.
For every operator it is important to understand all impacts no matter what the job and most importantly how to continue to meet permit limits. On a daily basis, operators must do projects and do them safely and with minimal impacts to other critical processes. An operator must do projects safely and remove or isolate dangers and properly lock out and tag out all potential hazards (explosive gas danger, hydraulic danger, electrical danger, mechanical danger). They must do the job and not impact biological processes detrimentally (continue to meet effluent permit limit). They must work in busy and dangerous streets over open manholes that contain deadly hydrogen sulfide gases while operating a half million-dollar VAC truck or camera truck and not back up homes with sewage. An operator must also properly restart equipment and ensure all processes that were impacted are operating correctly. My point is this, the wastewater department employees require a totally different level of critical thinking that are not accounted for on job analysis/qualification forms for these wage studies. These studies do not address the operator working in and around hazardous working conditions daily which is also not accounted for properly in these studies. Operators work around basic and acidic acids, possible presence of hydrogen sulfide gas, explosive methane gas, high pressure air, hot temperatures of oil and water, electricity, open tanks, and most importantly in confined spaces at times.
There is much more that I could add to the list for daily hazards operators work in. I would love to know how other employees in other departments in these studies are somehow generating more points and being placed in higher pay scales and they do not encounter these situations ever, especially not on a daily basis. Wastewater employees are similar to fire fighters and police officers when it comes down to job hazards and safety.
It would be great if these studies addressed the dollar impact operators can have with their decisions. There should be a metric used in these studies similar to dollar impact per decision. I can simply point out that a collection system operator making a decision could not only affect the millions of dollars of underground infrastructure, but a poor decision could also back up hundreds of homes and businesses and cause health issues, millions of dollars of damage to homes and businesses, and even death. Or how a wastewater treatment plant operator could make a decision that could damage millions of dollars of infrastructure at a facility, cause processes to fail, damage tens of thousands of dollars of equipment, cause a failure to meet permit, and/or potentially cause harm to co-workers. These are not small and simple decisions being made.
The fact of the matter is this, the better an operator does the job, the less you hear about it. That likely needs to change. Our profession will need to promote, display, showcase, and get the word out on what an operator does. We need others to see the dangers we work in and the critical decisions we make. Our profession will need to tell its story. That seems to work for other professions, and it truly does impact pay.