Public Works catches up on services still lacks workers

first_imgAfter a month of backlogs and overtime, Bethel’s water tanks are filled and sewer pipes emptied. Public Works caught up on water deliveries Wednesday and on sewer Saturday after a month of delayed service.Bethel water truck (Photo by Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK)The gridlock began on December 23, two days before Christmas, when a water truck rolled off the road. City Manager Ann Capela says the accident started a cascade effect that spread throughout the Public Works Department.“What we had in December was what you call a perfect storm,” Capela said.The rollover took out a truck and temporarily a driver as well. Meanwhile, a number of people had resigned. Workers were on leave for the holidays. Others were sick.“And all of a sudden, you had a shortage of trucks, shortage of drivers, and shortage of mechanics, and that’s what we’ve been grappling with the past month,” Capela said.To make up for the deficit, drivers worked holidays, weekends, and double-shifts from the time of the accident through this Saturday. Winter’s harsh conditions compounded the problem. Truck breakdowns happened more often, and the Sterling models forming the fleet aren’t made anymore, making finding parts difficult and expensive.Public Works Director Muzaffar Lakhani says with the shortages, the bottleneck squeezed tighter.“We tried to catch up with the previous day’s routes,” Lakhani said, “and then the new day’s routes fall behind. So that’s how we have been behind a day, day and a half, up to two days since Dec 23.”To close the gap, drivers took on multiple shifts and additional routes. Capela says with the push to catch up, stress built and errors multiplied.“Let’s say it’s a new driver on a new route. They don’t know all the nuances, and they get back to the shop, and, ‘Oh my gosh, I missed this address.’ That happens,” she said.Lakhani says customers accommodated the department and Public Works kept an ongoing list of re-dos.In a special meeting last week, City Council approved the purchase of a new water truck. At 4,000 gallons, it holds more than the city’s current trucks. The larger capacity should save the drivers time, allowing them to haul more water in one trip. More importantly, the vehicle is a new Mack truck, and parts should be easy to locate. The Mack should arrive this fall.City Council has also requested $2.6 million from the state to purchase a new fleet, but with the Alaska budget deficit, Capela expects the city will have to create its own designated fund.“The custom, practice and tradition of Alaska for many rural areas,” Capela said, “has been that when villages or cities needed capital investment for infrastructure, they would go to the state, the state was flushed with money, and the state would allocate it. That’s gone.”But even if the city gets new trucks, it’ll still need more workers to drive and fix them. The city is short two mechanics—almost half its budgeted staff—and three drivers. Lakhani says there’s a core group of employees who’ve worked in the department for decades, but a few positions always remain open.“I don’t remember any month we haven’t been looking, haven’t taken the driver positions off our website,” he said.The city has partnered with Yuut Elitnaurviat, an adult workforce development center in Bethel, which started offering Commercial Drivers License courses in 2013. Lakhani says of the six drivers they’ve hired from the school, three remain with the city, and the reasons the others left are common.“The new, young drivers get the experience and then go join their families in the villages or in Anchorage,” Lakhani said. “Either they are not comfortable here, they find a better job, or they find a better place to work.”Public Works isn’t the only city department looking for employees. The finance and police department are both operating on half their budgeted staff.Capela says the deficit comes from Bethel employers competing for a limited skilled labor pool in a geographically isolated area.With Public Works caught up on deliveries, the city doesn’t expect anymore delays. That is if the trucks keep running and the workforce doesn’t diminish.Correction: A previous version of this story said the city has hired three workers who’ve completed the Yuut Elitnaurviat CDL program and only one of those drivers remains with the city. Those numbers are incorrect. The city has hired six workers who’ve completed the Yuut Elitnaurviat CDL program and three of those drivers remain working with the city. Also, a previous version of this story incorrectly titled the adult workforce center as Yuut Elitnaurvik. The correct title is Yuut Elitnaurviat. KYUK regrets the errorslast_img

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