Little more than six months after helping a group of temporary workers claim better wages and put an end to bizarre fees that ate into their already meager incomes, local activists are suddenly less sublime about the battles they won last year.
That’s because of the 50 workers they represented in legal tussles with their employers — Over-the-Rhine-based employment agency TLC Industrial Temporaries, and Rumpke Consolidated Cos. — less than half are still working at the waste company’s St. Bernard recycling center.
The rest are unemployed, struggling to survive and worse off than they were just a year ago at this time.
“The people we work with have had a hard time in their life,” says Don Sherman, executive director of Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center (CIWC), one of the groups that represented the workers.
“Most of them have been marginally homeless, they’ve had to stay at the Drop Inn shelter or had to stay with relatives,” Sherman adds. “It was hard to live on the money they were making before. Now, most of them don’t even have that.”
The plight of the workers at Rumpke’s recycling center stretches back for the better part of a decade. The company, which has held Cincinnati’s waste hauling contract since 1992, has long contracted with TLC for the temporary workers to sift through garbage that arrives at the plant, separating cardboard, glass and hazardous materials from the flow of everyday refuse for $7.30 an hour.
But TLC also imposed a daily $7 transportation and equipment fee on the workers, meaning they had to work one hour just to break even and their actual pay actually fell below Ohio’s minimum wage level.
In 2003, though, Cincinnati City Council passed a living wage ordinance which mandated that companies with service contracts with the city were required to pay a “living wage” that was significantly higher than what TLC and Rumpke were paying the workers — the current living wage is $10.90 per hour.
Still, the workers didn’t see the increase in their paychecks. Both TLC and Rumpke argued that the recycling workers weren’t covered by the ordinance.
By 2007, the Blue-Green Alliance, a coalition of environmental and labor groups, and the CIWC took up the workers’ cause. Backed by other labor unions and the Sierra Club, their work led to changes in the transportation and equipment fee rules, and by early the next year the matter came again before City Council.
Ultimately, council unanimously voted to renew the city’s contract with Rumpke with one large condition: Council determined that the recycling workers were covered by the living wage ordinance, and it appeared the battle had been won.
But it was a short victory. By then, Rumpke was already ramping up for automation. The company had long planned to install a new, $5 million state-of-theart processing system that uses lasers to scan, weigh and separate recyclables. In preparation for the system’s installation, Rumpke stopped sorting recyclable items shortly after the City Council vote. Without the need for workers to fulfill their contract with Rumpke, TLC then laid off all 50 of their former Rumpke workers.
The waste company promised full-time jobs would be available when the scanner came online. However, there would only be 14 of the full-time spots that offered the living wage and benefits.
As work continued on the new scanner system, Rumpke went about the hiring process for those jobs. Slowly, word began to trickle back to CIWC that most of the former temp workers were being told “thanks, but no thanks.”
The group launched a letter-writing campaign to urge the waste company to give the workers priority in the hiring process, and was disappointed in the result.
According to Rumpke’s Amanda Pratt, its corporate communications director, only four of the 14 jobs went to former temp workers. But she argues that the company did take CIWC’s letters to heart and gave the workers a leg-up in applying for the jobs.
“The workers were made aware of the job opportunity as early as last June, before we posted them to the general public,” Pratt says. “They knew about the jobs before anyone else and could apply for them before we posted the jobs to the general public. In the end, four of (the former temp workers) met the necessary requirements and are working for us now.”
She adds that because of the long pause while the new system was installed, the company has a backlog of waste to be sorted and is again employing 14 temporary workers from TLC in a second shift to help catch up. The company sees the temporary jobs as a learning opportunity, Pratt adds, and it hopes those workers will grow into other jobs both at the St. Bernard plant and at nearly 40 other Rumpke sites in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana.
And, as other full-time positions open up, the former temps will be considered for new openings, she says.
With only 18 out of the original workers back to working at the St. Bernard recycling center, however, community activists aren’t satisfied.
“It’s very disappointing,” says Dan Moore, CIWC’s membership coordinator. “Getting those workers a living wage was a huge victory. Then, on the eve of them finally getting the opportunity to earn a living wage, most of them were denied that.”
Despite acknowledgment that Rumpke management did receive letters from the group, Moore dislikes that neither the company nor TLC reached out to discuss the matter. Further, the number of former temps hired suggests Rumpke didn’t make much of an effort to bring them back.
“We would be interested to hear what the hiring requirements were,” Moore says. “We know there were more people who were qualified to work there — some of them had worked for Rumpke five or seven years.
“I don’t know what experience they could have had that would have been more applicable than doing the same exact job already.”
This related story was broadcast on WCPO Channel 9.