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Tulsa water and sewer, call center worker shortage blamed for odd bills and lack of answers


The City of Tulsa is short workers in its water and sewer department and call center, and that’s causing problems for residents.

The city started issuing estimated bills to some utility customers because there aren’t enough water meter readers to check every single one. In some cases, the estimated bills have been significantly higher. Other times, inexperienced workers get the meter reading wrong. Water and Sewer Director Clayton Edwards said while he’s grateful starting pay has been boosted to nearly $15 an hour, it’s not enough to keep people in a physically demanding job in a tight labor market.

"You know, we have examples of someone that can go to work for Target as part-time for, like, $18 an hour, or drive for Amazon for $16, $17 an hour. So, we need to not only try to meet those, but we need to kind of exceed that. If we just meet it, then we'll be behind within months," Edwards told city councilors.

The city has already started working toward installing automated meter readers in some residential areas.

The estimated bills are denoted by an E on the monthly statement. But the practice isn’t well known, and potential differences in the amount being charged are spurring people to call the city, which, remember, is short on customer service agents, resulting in people waiting hours or not getting through at all.

Customer Care Director Monica Hamilton said add to that citizens’ shaken confidence from the recent ransomware attack the city is still recovering from.

"So, for some people, it is just a matter of, 'This doesn't look right, and you just went through this, and I know something's wrong.' And again, it's also made worse by the fact that they can't talk to a live body oftentimes. And so, that's what we're working to kind of overcome," Hamilton said.

The city has moved to placing door hangers when utility customers first have overdue bills instead of immediately shutting off their water.

Matt Trotter joined KWGS as a reporter in 2013. Before coming to Public Radio Tulsa, he was the investigative producer at KJRH. His freelance work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and on MSNBC and CNN.