Comedian Rodney Dangerfield and 911 operator Joe Schmidt have one thing in common: Neither claims to get any respect. But while Dangerfield is dissed by friends, family and foes alike, Schmidt feels the ingratitude he receives comes solely from the city of New Haven.
Now in his 17th year as an emergency call-taker, Schmidt said he is overworked, underpaid, and has only the city to blame. He feels city officials defaulted on their promise to promote him and the other communications operators to a higher-wage position with similar responsibilities.
In 1999, the city decided to create the job of police dispatcher. It was supposed to be similar to that of assistant police dispatcher, but while full dispatchers were given discretion regarding the emergency vehicles they send to a given incident, assistants merely follow orders and fill out forms detailing each call.
Will Clark, New Haven’s labor relations director, said assistants were promised the promotion, assuming they met other requirements that went along with the new job, but that communications operators were not. He added that the city said it would consider communications operators’ dispatcher applications on their merits but would not extend them the same special treatment given to assistant dispatchers.
But Schmidt feels he and other communications operators shoulder a far greater workload than any police dispatcher.
“All the calls that they [police dispatchers] get go through us first,” Schmidt said. “We put people in touch with the Coast Guard, police and HAZMAT during all the anthrax scares. We do it all and make less.”
Schmidt added that his designation of Communications Operator 3 is equivalent to a supervisor, but “they don’t want to call me a supervisor because then they’d have to pay me more money.”
Other operators have felt the same way and asked their union, Local 884 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to bargain with the city for a pay raise commensurate with their job responsibilities.
“We’re still in the negotiation process and have not run out of options,” Local 884 spokeswoman Mindy Berman said. “There are still more avenues to explore.”
But Clark does not see the issue as debatable.
“These people knew the pay rate for their jobs when they applied for them,” he said. “We haven’t broken any promises to them.”
Emergency operator salary woes are not unique to New Haven. In Hartford, where no distinction is made between police dispatchers and communications operators, 911 call-takers still feel unappreciated.
“We [in Hartford] are some of the lowest-paid people, but we handle one of the highest volumes of calls,” 25-year veteran dispatcher Jeff Maltz said.
Maltz said emergency operators in any Connecticut town are not allowed to strike because they are considered “essential employees.” He said this leaves them few options at the bargaining table.
“We can’t exactly walk out,” he said. “We just have to keep doing our jobs well and hope someone notices.”