ST. PETERSBURG — When video cameras were installed in the city's sanitation fleet last year, they were hailed as a way to reduce accidents and improve driver safety.
But in a tense union bargaining session last week, sanitation drivers criticized the cameras. The drivers said they constantly feel under surveillance and fear the data the city was collecting could be used against them — and could even cost them their jobs.
They want the cameras gone.
"This camera is a distraction," said sanitation worker Anita Richardson, 52, who has spent about 10 years driving garbage trucks for the city. "I'm looking at this camera to make sure I don't make a mistake and end up in the office or lose my job."
Union officials called the meeting with city labor negotiators on March 22 to declare they had changed their minds about the initiative, which began in April 2016. Back then, the union was cautiously supportive of the program, but under the condition that no drivers would be disciplined for any incidents during a four-month trial period that ended that August.
But now as the city prepares to enter into a three-year, $200,000 contract with Lytx, the California vendor that installed the system, the union wants to pump the brakes.
During the trial period, sanitation drivers were involved in 19 incidents, but only 3 were captured by the two cameras installed in the truck's cab, which face the driver.
The city says the cameras — which record continuously — captured 454 "coachable" incidents, which included driving without a seatbelt, texting while driving and other infractions.
The union says those numbers are lower than comparable four-month periods and show the city has a safer sanitation fleet than Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. Many of the "coachable" incidents happen while trucks maneuvering in tight spaces in city yards, they said.
Florida Public Services Union chief of staff Rick Smith said the cameras send a chilling message to drivers: "We have zero trust in your ability to do your job without spying."
And that message, Smith said, has frayed sanitation workers' trust in Mayor Rick Kriseman's administration.
"Trust in the administration is completely gone and morale is at its lowest in people's memory," Smith said.
Kriseman is running for reelection this year. The mayor's spokesman, Ben Kirby, said the mayor and the union have celebrated many victories together, including paid parental leave, increases in wages and employment opportunities.
"Now we're working our way down the list to things like new technology," Kirby said. "The mayor is supportive of this technology: it increases public safety, improves the safety of drivers, improves job performance and saves taxpayer money.
"So, yeah, we believe in these cameras."
Driver and union officials contest the city's assertions. They say there were fewer accidents during the trial period than in the previous four months. They also worry about the camera's loose wires causing fires. One truck that had a camera installed burned to a crisp, although officials said no cause of the fire has been determined.
And, workers and their union ask, why is the city so intent on using video cameras to monitor its garbage and recycling truck fleet when St. Petersburg police officers still don't have body cameras?
Kristen Mory, the city's labor relations and compensation manager, said the two issues aren't comparable. The police department has been studying whether to equip officers with some type of cameras since Chief Tony Holloway was hired in 2014. That process is still ongoing, said police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez.
Holloway is leaning toward using cameras mounted on guns, but is still evaluating the technology, she said. There is no timetable for making a decision, she said.
The city and union will continue to bargain over the cameras. The two sides agreed to exchange information for the eight months since the trial period ended and keep talking after this session.
"Let's get the rest of that data and see what happens," Smith said.
Contact Charlie Frago at email@example.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.