Employees of the Birmingham Water Works delivered a "no-confidence" vote in the large utility's senior management this week, indicating concern about their treatment by higher-ups in the organization.
The Birmingham Water Works Employee Association (BWWEA) said that morale at the utility is at an all-time low and that many are leaving. Others, it said, fear for their job, claiming these problems have been going on for years with no answer.
In a letter to the Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB), the BWWEA asked for an investigation into the Water Works' general manager Michael Johnson, assistant general manager Derrick Murphy, chief financial officer Iris Fisher and human resources manager Paul Lloyd.
The letter indicated concern surrounding recent firings over alleged falsified overtime. Specifically, it referred to the firing of a supervisor who'd been with the utility for 28 years when he was "suspended without pay with a possibility of being fired."
"He is being accused of creating a project to make overtime when he cannot receive overtime," the letter read. "This supervisor cannot create projects. He can only make work orders from work given by multiple departments throughout the entire company. This work is approved by others."
The letter also accused the utility's leaders of operating with a "racial and preferential bias," making disciplinary decisions based on "emotion and attachment," and instituting new pay scales unfair to low-wage workers.
This isn't the first time in recent history an employee has accused the utility of poor treatment.
In December 2021, three employees in the Water Works billing department were fired after they were accused of falsifying meter readings for 28 new homes in Hoover.
This incident preceded a slew of billing problems that caused thousands of customers not to receive bills for months at a time, only to receive much larger or multiple bills all at once later.
The bills were also not based on accurate meter readings but estimations based on previous months. Birmingham Water Works blamed the issues on insufficient meter readers and inadequate staffing.
One of the employees fired suggested in October 2022 that the accusations levied against her were untrue and that she was simply following orders when she asked a meter reader to re-read the meters because initial readings indicated that the homes in one neighborhood had zero consumption, which she knew was likely not true.
She said she was told by her superiors to "reverse" the meters, a process of estimating water usage by dividing other readings, and that the "vast majority" of the Water Work's billing calculations are "guesswork."
The former employee also insisted that she and her teammates had requested the Water Works to put their process on paper for months, but this request was constantly denied. She said Johnson and the BWWB were getting "half information" from Water Works management.
In audio of an interaction between the employee and Johnson obtained by WBRC, the former employee warned Johnson that he would find the number of water meter readings the Water Works had accurate reading on "startling."
Johnson replied, "Yeah, I know."
Johnson upheld the former employee's firing, which the former employee said put the Water Works behind.
In response to the BWWEA letter, the Water Works issued an extensive statement clarifying its commitment to its employees. It stated that the BWWB meets monthly with the BWWEA to address concerns and that the utility has implemented improvements to its "employee culture."
"These efforts have included improvements in salary structures to provide competitive compensation, initiatives to retain valuable employees, and the recruitment of new talent to enhance our service delivery to our customers," the statement read. "We are committed to continuing these efforts to ensure that our employees are well-supported and motivated."
It also said the Water Works handles "internal matters internally to protect the confidentiality of our employees," and the utility's leadership "intends to convene with the Employee Association to delve deeper into the concerns raised, while the Birmingham Water Works Board remains committed to overseeing management and ensuring the timely resolution of the matter."
Johnson also issued a response directly to the BWWEA. He insisted that the termination of an employee is "not taken lightly" and laid out the steps of the board's disciplinary process.
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