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Workers: Detroit layoffs threaten water safety

William Warby

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department will lay off about 100 more employees this month.

That’s promptedsome workers to sound the alarm. They warn that DWSD is already understaffed, and say laying off more workers could compromise water safety.

“We’ve lost chemists, engineers, instrument technicians … a whole range of people,” says Michael Mulholland, President of AFSCME Local 207, which represents some workers at the wastewater plant. “We’re concerned that what they’re doing is running it on a business model that is inappropriate and irresponsible.”

The loss of so many experienced, skilled workers should raise serious concerns about water quality going forward, Mulholland added. “They’re not laying people off in order of seniority,” he said. “They’re laying off, in many cases, the people who have been there the longest and know the most.”

As of July, DWSD staff ranks stood at 1,358, down from 2,102 in 2011. Further job cuts are expected as the department officially transitions to the control of the new, regional Great Lakes Water Authority next year.

DWSD officials say the job cuts reflect needed streamlining, with the department coming into compliance with federal pollution control standards in recent years.

It was under federal court oversight for wastewater violations until 2013. The U.S. District Court in Detroit has claimed continued authority over labor and other issues to ensure the transition to the water authority, which emerged from Detroit’s bankruptcy.

"The decisions surrounding the optimization of the organization were done with safety and regulatory compliance in mind,” DWSD Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Porter said in a written statement. “The optimization design has broader, more flexible jobs, therefore requiring fewer positions. Job responsibilities are shared to ensure continued compliance."

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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