Shaffer: Years of taking trash ends in mess for female sanitation worker

jshaffer@newsobserver.comNovember 18, 2012 

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A 2006 photo of Shirley Venable has been driving a truck for the City of Raleigh Sanitation for seven years. "We have to work 12-hour shift three times a week," she said. The NC Public Service Workers Union is negotiating their grievances with the City.

TAKAAKI IWABU — 2006 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

— Shirley Venable drove a Raleigh garbage truck for more than 10 years, the only woman in her division, the sole female in a gritty, dirty, muscle-aching job where discontent runs high and sentences get punctuated with four-letter words.

The men respected her, and she got many high marks from supervisors. Then in July 2011, she blew her stack. She argued with her supervisor, stormed out of the solid waste barn on Peace Street and said some words that got her fired.

What she said depends on whom you ask. A dozen guys heard a dozen things, depending on where they were standing and how closely they were paying attention.

But it seems certain that Shirley said something like this: If her boss Larry Troy kept acting the way he acts, somebody would do him like the man 10 years ago – a clear reference to Angelo Spruill, the Raleigh solid waste supervisor shot dead by a disgruntled employee in 1993.

Firing a worker who threatens violence, even implied or indirect violence, sounds like a no-brainer. But before you judge Shirley, now in her 50s, you need to hear the wider truth.

First, it’s important to realize that this isn’t the typical workplace.

Spend an hour at the barn on Peace Street – and I spent lots of them there in 2006, when the workers walked off the job twice – and you’ll realize this is a rough and tumble world, where the personnel directives tacked on a bulletin board don’t mean much.

It’s a place full of dirty work and stress, where you drive 60 miles to work in a job that pays $25,000. Six years ago, every worker on that lot thought he was getting shortchanged, and every one of them was right. I remember riding on trucks at 9 p.m., well past dark, with men who’d been collecting cans for 14 hours without a cent of overtime.

Second, on the day in question, Shirley Venable had only half-recovered from a nightmare most of us can’t imagine.

She’d ordered her husband out of their house, but he snuck back in and hid under a bed.

When she came home, he held her at knife-point in their bedroom all night long before she could escape. After a hospital stay, she returned to work with her hand bandaged, fearing she’d lose her job over the days she’d missed work.

So you can imagine her state of mind when she walked in the door at Peace Street to hear she hadn’t been pulling her weight. You can imagine it even more vividly when her male co-workers teased her about how “your man (messed) you up.”

I don’t bring any of this up to justify making threats. I’m just not sure what Shirley said constitutes a threat, and I am next-to positive that nobody there took her seriously.

For the last few weeks, Shirley has sought to get her job back through the city’s Civil Service Commission, and a parade of her co-workers gave testimony on both sides. If you listened to their stories, you heard a jumble, a mishmash, and the truth only got muddier.

What workers say

One of the workers outside said he heard Shirley threaten to fetch her gun, and though he didn’t hear her use anybody’s name, “A bullet ain’t got nobody’s name on it.”

But he also said that he can’t read very well and that a supervisor wrote his statement for him.

Shirley didn’t drive her car to work that day, and she didn’t own a gun. Nobody – not even the men who said they were scared – thought to call police. They let Shirley get into a city-owned truck and drive away with her crew.

Male-female split

Three women on the commission voted with Shirley; two men against. It takes four votes to overturn an administrator’s decision, so her attempt at getting her job back failed. She has promised to pursue the case further.

A female board member took offense at the idea that the votes were cast due to gender, but Shirley’s lawyer Jan Pueschel noted it, saying, “Women have a whole different outlook on the workplace.”

As I left the hearing, I thought about the times I’ve stomped out of a workplace and told the streetlamps and the trees how much I’d like to have it out with someone. I haven’t so much as thrown a punch since the ninth grade, but I’ve certainly felt the urge. I’ll bet you have, too. That’s why they invented coffee breaks.

At my first newspaper, where I started working 19 years ago, a colleague of mine suggested that our editor ought to be treated the way a hunter would treat a 10-point buck. A threat? Maybe.

The difference between my workplace and Shirley’s isn’t just that I knew my co-worker didn’t mean any harm. It’s that I wouldn’t have gained anything by turning him in. Nobody would have considered me a loyal employee and maybe given me a promotion.

At Solid Waste Services, I’m not so sure.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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