Cleaning Up the Dirty Work
by Rebecca Bratek
Timothy Johnson just wants to care for his family.
He isn’t asking for a promotion, special treatment, or even an enormous wage increase.
Johnson just wants to be treated fairly and receive the benefits and compensation he thinks he deserves from the City of Buffalo, something he hasn’t received the past nine years he’s worked as a seasonal sanitation worker.
He is a father; like any other man, Johnson cares for his six-year-old daughter, except for the days he cannot even risk taking her to the dentist. He fears his job will be filled when he returns. When his oldest daughter passed away from complications associated with diabetes, he rushed to Virginia—where his daughter lived—to bury her, then rushed home so he wouldn’t miss a day of work.
He is a diabetic, and he cannot afford healthcare. He’s a veteran, a taxpayer, and a city worker.
Johnson is one of 70 seasonal workers with similar stories in the Public Works Department of the City of Buffalo. Despite the “seasonal” designation, these workers work the same full-time schedule as permanent laborers, minus two weeklong layoff periods that allow city government to classify workers as seasonal without contracts.
The seasonal workers receive a “living wage,” just as the permanent workers do, but lack health benefits, sick days, paid time off, and holidays. They work alongside the permanent workers, with no distinction on the field between who is contracted and who is not.
Buffalo’s Living Wage Ordinance was passed in 1999 and implemented in 2002, ensuring all workers are paid a living wage—a way to keep Buffalo citizens out of poverty. The wages are calculated on an hourly basis and are designed to change every year with inflation. For the year 2012, the living wage is set at $10.71, with benefits, and $12.02 for workers without health benefits. Seasonal workers like Johnson make more per hour than the permanent workers, but Micaela Shapiro-Shellaby—lead organizer for the Coalition for Economic Justice, an organization dedicated to creating and preserving jobs within communities in need throughout Western New York—doesn’t believe it is enough.
“The seasonals get paid more, but clearly the benefits package totally outweighs it,” she said. “As if a dollar and some change could allow you to purchase or buy in to a healthcare program.”
In 2003, the New York State Legislature declared that a condition of “fiscal difficulty” existed in the City of Buffalo—a crisis that threatened the welfare of all Buffalo residents. In response, the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority was created to oversee the financial and capital plans of the city. A wage freeze was implemented, preventing salary increases for city workers during the time of financial crisis. The freeze was lifted in July 2007.
According to Shapiro-Shellaby, the wage freeze mandate only applied to bargaining units or workers who have a contract with the city; the city has no contractual obligation to the seasonal workers, and they are not protected by a collective bargaining unit.
During the almost four-year period of the wage freeze, the seasonal workers were not making a living wage, though the Living Wage Ordinance said the city must pay its workers that base amount.
The seasonal workers have since taken this issue to New York State Supreme Court, asking the City of Buffalo to pay the almost four years of back-pay they feel they are owed. The seasonal sanitation workers won the first court decision.
Since the initial decision, the City of Buffalo has appealed three times, finding new arguments as to why the workers cannot receive the compensation the court has said they’re owed.
Currently, there are two issues the City of Buffalo and the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority find fault with in the court’s decision. First, they claim the workers were paid for eight hours of work when only working for six or less. If you divide the pay the workers receive by six, the city argues, the workers are making a living wage.
“The city and the control board have stuck by their claim that the guys are paid the living wage if you break it down,” said John Lichtenthal, the lawyer for the seasonal sanitation workers. “And they got all excited about that, not knowing that’s how most sanitation workers around the country are paid.”
The second issue is concerned with how the seasonal workers brought their case to court. The city argues the case should have been brought to the court by an Article 78 proceeding (an appeal made to the State Supreme Court if an administrative agency has wronged another body), as opposed to a regular court proceeding.
Lichtenthal believes the earliest the case can be fully settled is March 2013.
Shapiro-Shellaby says that CEJ fears the city and the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority will ultimately spend more on litigation costs than what is owed to the workers. “It’s just precedent and principle, which is even more disturbing,” she said.
“The cost of going to the appeals court is rather expensive. The lawyers for the control board [and the city] are private parties. They’re not cheap. And the city taxpayer foots the bill for their legal expenses,” Lichtenthal said. “And if we prevail, there’s a part of the statute that allows the plaintiffs to recover for attorney’s fees.”
If the seasonal workers win the case, the City of Buffalo will pay substantially more than what it would have cost to just pay the living wage to begin with, he said.
Shapiro-Shellaby submitted a Freedom of Information Law request on June 29, asking the City of Buffalo, in the simplest terms, how much time and money was spent on the lawsuit.
According to the results she received on August 13, the City of Buffalo paid $1,438.55 in legal fees throughout the entire court process. Timothy Ball, the city’s corporation counsel, who is in charge of the case, is paid $38.43 per hour, a number apparently derived by dividing his annual salary by the number of theoretical work-hours in a year. A receptionist at Ball’s office told us that the city does not keep a record of how many hours Ball and other city attorneys work on particualar cases.
Shapiro-Shellaby believes the city isn’t being entirely forthcoming about the costs of litigation.
After four phone calls, an email, and being bounced between the departments of Public Works and Public Relations, Michael DeGeorge, spokesman for the mayor, said the city currently has no comment on the matter because of pending litigation.
The “seasonal” classification of workers started in the 1970s, when the City of Buffalo brought in workers to help with “big garbage” pick-up days. The city needed a few extra hands to help during the summer months, according to Shapiro-Shellaby.
Though there is no paper trail that shows how today’s seasonal workers were put into their cureent predicament, Shapiro-Shellaby believes the city started to extend seasonal hours until workers were eventually put into the bargaining unit as permanent workers. Somehow, some workers were contracted out of the bargaining unit, thus creating today’s “seasonal” workers, she said.
Promotion from seasonal to permanent worker status doesn’t seem to be performance-based, according to Shapiro-Shellaby, and workers like Timothy Johnson do not understand why. Shapiro-Shellaby has heard numerous accounts of workers being asked to collect signatures or canvass neighborhoods for whomever the current mayor is in order to earn permanent worker status. She added such claims are still unsubstantiated.
“You have to make political contributions or we have to get signatures,” Johnson said. “For us guys that filed the lawsuit against the city, we will never. It’s just one frustration after the next.”
Johnson stressed he is not working to better Mayor Byron Brown, and he doesn’t believe in politics or helping someone earn political advantage; rather, he works for the City of Buffalo and gives his city all that he has.
“Byron Brown, do the right thing. One time, do the right thing,” he said. “There are people who have dedicated their blood, sweat, and tears to keep this city clean and yet you deny them an opportunity to provide for their families.”blog comments powered by Disqus
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