AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

DeKalb water managers: Workers aren’t loafing, they’re resting

What are we to make of DeKalb County water department workers clocking marathon, superhuman overtime hours that would make most people keel over from exhaustion, as reported in Sunday’s AJC?

Are they false time reports designed to pad paychecks? (The AJC found one case of a clocked-in worker who records show being in two places at once.) Or are Watershed Department managers recklessly pushing low-level workers past the point of ordinary human endurance, setting up accidents waiting to happen?

Whatever the case, several residents who emailed me this week questioned what they are receiving in return. They complained that water and sewer workers often appear to be loafing in public.

“This has been my observation for years watching any DeKalb County water or sewer repair – one or two guys doing the work in the pit while a gaggle of other guys are standing around watching,” Steve Miller of Decatur wrote. “This goes on for hours or even days with those extras loitering around, talking on their phones, eating, drinking or smoking and never doing any work.

“Is this what we are paying overtime for?” he asked.

Marcelo Zapata of Roswell sent me a photo of a crew spotted on Clairmont Road last month, showing what appear to be eight men staring into a hole with hands in their pockets while a ninth looks on from the seat of a backhoe.Zapata said it “struck me as interesting that there were so many guys watching one guy working in one hole.”

Another reader, commenting on the AJC’s own photo that accompanied the story, wrote, “Count the # of people standing/looking and doing nothing. I can't tell you how many times I pass a work crew with 8-10 people and just two working. Why do they send out so many people?”

The issue of potential loafing came up when I interviewed Watershed Management Director James Chansler and his assistant director over operations, Charles Lambert. They said they’ve heard such accusations, but those workers are actually taking much-needed breaks.

They told me long hours are part of the job when you work for a 24/7 utility, and that water workers count on overtime for their livelihood. I asked them about the safety risk of having men working 30 hours straight or 32 consecutive days, and Lambert told me that men on the job do get breaks for water, Gatorade, what have you.If someone is falling asleep on their feet, the department relies on supervisors to call in replacements, but extra workers can be hard to come by with manpower stretched thin, Lambert said.

“We’re always concerned for their safety,” Lambert said in my story. “But it’s not an individual out there. It’s a crew out there.”

I passed this along to Miller, but he wasn’t moved.

“Within the past couple of years, there were several major sewer episodes in front of my house and I observed these guys over several days on each episode,” he said. “The one or two guys in the pit were working and filthy dirty; the watchers remained pristine clean, even to the end of the day. If they were ‘resting’ from working, why were they so clean?”

DeKalb water customers may be sensitive, since their water rates went up 16 percent in 2011, then 11 percent every year since, to help pay for $1.35 billion in needed upgrades.

Then there were the allegations of bribery, bid rigging and contract padding by certain Watershed employees, laid out in a special purpose grand jury report. Then there are the livid Brookhaven residents whose bills doubled and tripled earlier this year after new meters were installed.

So when DeKalbians see what looks like a bloated water crew standing around doing nothing, it strikes a nerve.

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About the Author

Johnny Edwards is a member of the AJC’s investigative team, focusing on the private sector and state and federal regulation. He has worked at the newspaper since 2010.