Temporary water operators to earn $160 an hour in compensation, travel expenses, benefits city officials say

A water tower emblazon with the City of Jackson, Miss., official seal.
A water tower emblazon with the City of Jackson, Miss., official seal.(Rogelio V. Solis | AP)
Published: Nov. 15, 2022 at 3:27 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Temporary water operators brought on to help beef up staffing at Jackson’s water treatment plants will be compensated at a rate of $160 an hour, according to city council documents.

Last week, the council approved a contract with WaterTalent LLC to provide temporary staffing for the city’s O.B. Curtis and J.H. Fewell water treatment plants.

The operators began working on Monday, City Attorney Catoria Martin told the council at a special meeting on Tuesday.

According to the order approving the hire, “the temporary contract operators will be compensated at a rate of $160 per hour,” and be eligible to receive overtime and holiday pay.

That amount, though, is not straight salary, according to Councilwoman Virgi Lindsay. She says the amount also includes expenses for travel, such as food and lodging, and insurance.

“It’s expensive. But we have to keep the water plants operating,” she said. “We have to keep running water for the residents.”

WaterTalent has assigned four Class A water operators to Jackson, to work at the city’s water treatment facilities. Most, if not all of those operators, are from out-of-state.

The total cost of the contact is not to exceed $720,000 and will run through February 28, 2023. The first 10 weeks is expected to cost around $420,000.

Contractors also will be compensated for on-call duty, earning one hour of regular salary if they’re required to be in a “ready-to-respond status” after hours on days they work, and two hours’ salary for days where they do not work a shift but must remain on call.

A city council order spells out on-call compensation for temporary operators contracted to work...
A city council order spells out on-call compensation for temporary operators contracted to work at Jackson's water plants.(WLBT)

Meanwhile, if an operator is called to respond to an alarm, the city will be charged a minimum of two hours, or the duration of the emergency, beginning when the operator leaves his/her home and ending when he or she returns home.

Ted Henifin, a consultant speaking to the council at a special meeting on Thursday, said the operators would earn in the $40-an-hour range, reiterating that the $160 includes travel, fringe benefits, “everything that the company has to pay those people to have those people on staff and available,” he said.

By comparison, level 1 water operators on the city’s payroll earn between $34,698 and $41,797 a year, while level 2 operators bring home between $36,323 to $43,776 annually. Based on a 40-hour workweek, someone earning $43,776 would be making just slightly more than $21 an hour.

Council President Ashby Foote raised concerns about the contract at last week’s meeting, saying the high pay for the temporary water operators would be “demoralizing to the folks that have been heroic, as you mentioned, over the past several months.”

During the contract’s initial 10-week period, total salary, benefits and travel expenses for one temporary worker would total $64,000. That does not include overtime or pay for being on call. Combined, all four water operators brought in under the contract would earn a combined $256,000 in salary, benefits and other expenses, more than half of the $420,000 the city will pay WaterTalent during that period.

A level 2 operator on the city staff would make $8,418 during that same 10-week span, not counting overtime.

“There’s no doubt that’s a challenge, but a big piece of this is it also allows them not to have to work 70 to 80 hours a week,” Henifin said, answering Foote. “And they can’t really take off without knowing they’ve got qualified, experienced operators to sit in those seats and operate the plant. They can never rest.”

Also, under terms of the agreement, the city would be required to pay the California-based WaterTalent for any operator it hires away from the company, for an amount up to 25 percent of that employee’s annual salary.

The city brought on the firm last week to help supplement water plant staff as the state’s emergency declaration governing Curtis and Fewell plants wind down.

The firm was recommended to the city by Henifin and the U.S. Water Alliance. Henifin, who is said to be an expert on surface water, was brought in by the advocacy group at the start of the August/September emergency. His position is being funded by a grant from the Kellogg Foundation.

In August, Gov. Tate Reeves declared a state of emergency after equipment failures at Curtis left tens of thousands of customers without running water. The federal government followed up with its own declaration shortly after.

Under the declarations, the state and federal government have supplemented city staff, providing operators, maintenance workers and others.

However, the declarations are set to expire on November 22 and November 28 respectively. Once that sunset, most staffers brought in by the entities are slated to leave, leaving both plants severely understaffed.

The Curtis plant has just four Class A operators, fewer than half of what it needs to ensure Class A coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week, as required per state and federal law.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has asked the governor at least three times to seek an extension for the federal emergency. However, Reeves only agreed to extend the state emergency five days, from November 17 to November 22.

“We have sent a request to the state asking they continue to offer aid through MEMA, in the form of water plant operators and maintenance personnel,” Martin told the council on Tuesday. “As you know, the cost is very steep, and so we have asked for the state, if they can, by helping us with the cost of water plant operators and maintenance personnel.”

MEMA is the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Martin to the council the agency was providing maintenance assistance through a contract with Hemphill Construction, which she says will also end on November 22.

“Without a federal declaration or state of emergency, MEMA has no authority or emergency purchasing powers to continue operations at the plants,” said Chief Communications Officer Malary White. “We are looking for additional resources that qualify for federal reimbursement and can assist the city with long-term solutions to maintain its water systems.”

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