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Columbia City Council approves lineworker wage increase

The Columbia City Council has voted in favor of making mid-year changes to the city’s budget that include upping the pay for lineworkers and eliminating vacant positions.

ABC 17 News has reported that the city is struggling to fill or retain lineworker positions because of the wages.

On Monday night, about two dozen lineworkers and their families sat in on the council meeting and several people from the community spoke to the council to explain how the proposed increase wasn’t going to be enough to hire qualified workers.

Rick Nowlin has worked for the department for years, and spoke to ABC 17 News after the decision. He said he’s close to retirement and is taking things day by day.

He told ABC 17 News that while the council vowed to get the issue addressed appropriately, he still wasn’t sure what’s going to happen.

“It’s been this way for five years,” he said. “Maybe they seen (sic) something in there, maybe they didn’t. A Band-Aid’s not going to work.”

He said that when the high winds blew down four power lines in northeast Columbia on March 13, they didn’t have enough qualified help to get them fixed. He said he was working with “guys who weren’t even linemen.”

He said the job is not something an unqualified worker can do without substantial risk.

“When you’ve got 7,600 volts in your hand, you don’t want to mess up,” he said. “You’ll get the person in the bucket killed or get yourself killed.”

In June, the city’s benchmark for line crews was 19 lineworkers and 10 apprentices. At that time, Columbia Water and Light had 13 lineworkers and eight apprentices.

“We have an obligation both morally and legally to provide our employees with a safe work environment,” said Kevin Thornton, who spoke on behalf of the lineworkers. “By being staffed with only 27 out of 37 positions, we’ve made lineworking more dangerous than it already is.”

The changes have no impact on the fiscal year 2019 budget due to the elimination of several vacant positions. Water & Light Director Tad Johnson said they don’t plan on coming back and asking for those back in the next budget, because they likely wouldn’t be able to fill them at this point.

Staff said the wage increases will affect the pay grade for journeyman lineworkers, line foremen and line superintendents.

“You call them journeyman linemen,” said Brittney Wilhite, a lineworker wife who spoke on behalf of the families assembled. “We call them daddy, son, husband, uncle and best friend.”

Wilhite spoke directly to council during the meeting, and implored members to think of the lineworkers as people and not just salaries on a page. She said the dangers of the job are made more dangerous because less qualified people are doing it.

“The current lineman experience is minimal, staffing is short, and morale is low,” she said. “Without a staffing shortage, the job is dangerous enough. Why should we add more risks by not fixing the crisis we are facing?”

According to city staff, a consultant provided market salary data for lineworker pay.

Former Water & Light Director Jim Windsor told ABC 17 News he was disappointed that the City Council didn’t table the issue and got answers from staff about what the consultant had provided.

“If Boone Electric has an opening and they can get more than this, guess what? They will [take it],” he said.

Beyond the pay grade impacts for those positions, the decision by the council also created a new pay grade called A15:

Minimum: $31.70 per hour/$65,936 per year Midpoint: $38.83 per hour/$80,766 per year Maxiumum: $48.97 per hour/$101,858 per year

Columbia Water and Light board members voted in early April to support the cuts, but with the caution it was only a first step to resolving issues in the department.

Council members voted unanimously to approve the raise, with an amendment that upped the wage from $34.794 to $35.158 an hour.

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