Watered-down wages: Peoria water plant operators strike
via Illinois American Water

PEORIA, Ill.—Illinois American Water employees have unanimously voted to strike after weeks of deliberation between the corporation and International Union of Operating Engineers Local 399. Operators and maintenance technicians at the Peoria plant have been hoping for changes to shift scheduling, better leave policies, and higher wages. A strike vote hasn’t been passed at the location for nearly two decades.

Lately, Illinois American employees have been stretched thin after losing a handful of co-workers over the last couple of years to higher-paying positions in the area. While they are on strike, Peoria operators say they are unsure of who will be stepping into their roles or what their qualifications might be.

Jason Fasano, a Water Treatment Operator at the Peoria plant, says the company has brought in non-union employees from across the Midwest “and we have no idea what training they have in water treatment, or if they have any type of license that we are required to hold for our jobs.”

Fasano says the system he operates is very complex, “taking months to learn, so to think someone can come in with no training poses multiple risks.” The biggest one is having water that is either overtreated or undertreated due to someone lacking water treatment training. “Main breaks are another risk when you have untrained operators running a system where pressures have to be monitored and changes made in order to keep water flowing safely,” he says.

The job is not only meticulous; it can be very physically demanding, and at times, dangerous. Maintenance technicians deal with repairs involving extremely high-voltage equipment, exposure to lethal chemicals, and servicing equipment at various heights. While line break repairs fall on the distribution team, maintenance techs are frequently called out late at night or in inclement weather to ensure their community never has an interruption in services.

Despite this dedication to their community, Peoria’s Illinois American Water employees are receiving approximately 10% less pay than state averages for similar positions. Inflation in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the last five years, while wages remain stagnant.

As an operator, employees are expected to oversee the water system for the entire county, monitor the use of water in the system, and take all necessary steps to ensure the safety and cleanliness of the drinking water for over 53,000 service connections. Operators are skilled laborers and have been difficult to come by in recent years.

With stagnant, uncompetitive wages and undesirable schedules, it is difficult to keep the Peoria plant fully staffed. In the last five years, it had an estimated employee turnover rate of 28%.

According to Fasano, “The shortage of employees has been felt throughout the plant, and everyone has been pitching in to cover shifts. The production technicians have been impacted the most over the past several months, with two or three people having to do the work of six or seven. Unfortunately, work has to be contracted out because we don’t have the personnel for all the work that needs to be done in order to keep our system operating properly. “

Illinois American Water has been in the news recently for requesting a rate hike that consumer advocates say would be overcharging customers. The Citizens Utility Board estimated that if awarded the increased rates, it would cost their average customer about $24 more a month.

In October 2023, the City of Peoria’s contract with Illinois American Water was up, giving it the opportunity to buy the water treatment facilities. Company executives revealed that they did not wish to sell the facility, and further investigation by Woodard and Cohen revealed that their Peoria and Champaign facilities yielded high rates of profit for the corporation. Ultimately, the city passed on purchasing the plant, as it would fall on Peoria residents to foot the bill for any repairs.

One concern amongst IUOE Local 399 operators is that lower pay rates will deter prospective employees with more experience, the kind of people who would have a more comprehensive understanding of the job.

There are many moving parts at the desk of a water treatment operation. Each eight-hour shift is broken up by monitoring rounds, where the operator leaves the desk briefly to record chemical quantities, log data for the EPA, and ensure the plant is running smoothly. Some operators work as maintenance technicians, traveling across the city to the various pumps, wells, and filters throughout the system to make necessary repairs and ensure each one is running properly.

It is a vast system, stretching throughout Peoria and several neighboring cities, and it requires many hands on deck. While this is attainable for a large team of dedicated professionals, it can put the health and safety of the community at risk when understaffed.

“After a month of negotiations, we didn’t receive a contract proposal that we deemed to be fair or one that kept us competitive with other treatment facilities,” Fasano said. “Our intention was never to strike, but we felt that it was our only action in order to be valued as the skilled employees we are. All of us are hoping for a quick resolution so we can get back to providing Peoria and surrounding areas with safe water.”

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Miranda Bates
Miranda Bates

Miranda Bates writes from Peoria, Illinois.