ITHACA, N.Y.—The Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility (IAWWTF) has been dealing with persistent staffing issues for years now, and the moment has come when officials are starting to explore long term solutions.
At the crux of the problem are uncompetitive wages, an issue that has been repeatedly raised by city workers as a cause for low moral and recruitment challenges, particularly in Ithaca’s Department of Public Works. Salaries at the IAWWTF are anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000 below a competitive offering for most of the facility’s positions, according to city and facility officials.
“We can slow down snow removal if we have staffing shortages, we can slow down road repairs if we have staffing shortages — water treatment and wastewater treatment is not something you can ramp up or down based on your staffing,” City of Ithaca Alderperson Cynthia Brock told The Ithaca Voice. “It is a priority that we will address, absolutely.”
Brock chairs the IAWWTF’s Special Joint Commission (SJC), the seven-member public body that represents the plant’s three municipal partners and oversees the wastewater facility’s operations. The City of Ithaca has four representatives on the SJC, the Town of Ithaca has two and the Town of Dryden has one.
At the SJC’s most recent meeting on Feb. 8, its members moved to form a working group that would start to look at options and ideas to remedy the facility’s staffing challenges. Brock told The Voice that the members of the group include herself and SJC members Dave Warden, Town of Ithaca Supervisor Bill Goodman and Town of Dryden Supervisor Jason Leifer.
The facility has been operating without a full staff for years. The current effort was spurred by the recent departures of three plant operators. One of those positions has already been filled, leaving the IAWWTF with, essentially, five of its 11 positions unfilled.
City of Ithaca Superintendent of Public Works Mike Thorne and other officials told The Voice that there’s no need for alarm — there is no significant risk to the plant’s operations faltering, they assured.
“We had a couple of unexpected departures,” Thorne said. We need to address it in the short term, which we are, and the SJC is convening a working group to look at options for the future” of the facility. “It’s certainly not a crisis.”
Addressing the pay discrepancy for the facility’s workers might appear to be a simple matter of the City of Ithaca biting the bullet and giving out some significant raises. However, that approach appears to be a non-starter for officials due to the way that the city’s labor contracts are structured.
Although the IAWWTF is inter-municipally owned, the City of Ithaca is the employer of record, meaning the plant’s workers are city employees and are in the city’s Administrative Unit represented by the Civil Service Employees Association.
In the Administrative Unit’s labor contract with the city, plant operator salaries are lumped in with other positions, like a GIS professional. Raising the salary of an operator would require raising the salary of other employees in the unit. Based on the discussion at the SJC’s Feb. 8 meeting, it doesn’t appear that the city will do that.
That roadblock for the IAWWTF to address its staffing concerns is also coupled with challenges that stretch beyond the City of Ithaca. The market rate salary for wastewater plant operators increased after the COVID-19 pandemic to an “exorbitantly high” point, Acting Assistant Superintendent of Water & Sewer Scott Gibson told the SJC. “The market is catching up to the shortage in operators.”
There is a general shortage of operators in the labor market, he said, which is worsening as the profession continues to see a dearth of new entrants. “Wastewater is sort of an acquired taste, if you will,” Gibson joked.
The difference in pay between what the IAWWTF can offer, and what workers can find at other facilities, has made the IAWWTF a temporary stop for most individuals starting their careers. Getting candidates in the door for operator positions is a challenge in its own right.
The starting pay for a trainee, a phase that lasts a minimum of 18 months, is at about $15 an hour — a starting wage that puts the IAWWTF in competition with the likes of big-box and grocery stores. “You can get paid more at Walmart or Home Depot right now,” Thorne said.
Additionally, the IAWWTF has been unable to find a replacement for retired Chief Operating Officer CJ Kilgore, who left in summer 2022. The Chief Operating Officer position, which is represented by the City Executive Association bargaining unit, is currently being filled through a private contract, the Camden Group. Camden is also assisting the IAWWTF in its recruiting efforts. Thorne estimated that the current salary that the IAWWTF is offering is potentially up to $50,000 less than competitive salary.
“I don’t think we’re gonna hire cheap. We’re just — we’re so far below market,” Thorne told the SJC.
The working group has a difficult task ahead of it. In an interview with The Voice, Leifer emphasized that the shortage of plant operators “is not unique to Ithaca. Wastewater plants — people aren’t going into that field.”
One idea for the working group to consider that briefly came up during the Feb. 8 SJC meeting was making the IAWWTF into its own entity — making its operations independent of the City of Ithaca’s. This would mean the IAWWTF becoming its own taxing jurisdiction, and forming a board of representatives, similar to a school district.
The working group hasn’t met yet, and there are few indications of what it will be considering as far as long term solutions to the IAWWTF’s staffing issues. The group’s meetings will not be open to the public.
When asked about the idea of the IAWWTF becoming its own entity, Leifer — Dryden’s Town Supervisor — said that it’s too early to tell what might come out of the working group. Its members are going to be going through a process of “laying out all the different options and figuring out what is possible,” he said.
“Ultimately, to do anything different. All three, [municipalities] have to approve,” Leifer said.
Speaking about the working group, Brock said that “we want to address our immediate concerns, as well as have a frank and honest conversation about solutions that will be more resilient over the long term. “
She added that the issues at the wastewater treatment facility “are not glamorous. They don’t get a lot of attention, but are our primary responsibility to our residents, and we cannot lose sight of that responsibility and obligation. And I think we do, because it’s always so easy to go after the shiny new thing and forget about all the things that we do day in and day out and that we do really, really well.”
Update (03/01/2023): This piece was updated to note that the Chief Operating Officer position at the Ithaca Area Wastewater Treatment Facility is represented by the City Executive Association bargaining unit.
Correction: The bargaining unit that plant operators were originally reported as being a part of was the City of Ithaca’s DPW Unit, not the Administrative Unit.