A city pay raise plan that’s been in the works for two years got a cold reception from workers when it was revealed this week to offer modest 2 percent pay hikes while curtailing other benefits.
Many East Baton Rouge Parish employees haven’t had a raise in more than five years and were hoping to see a more substantial proposal.
William Daniel, the mayor-president’s chief administrative officer, showcased the recommendations at this week’s Metro Council meeting. The plan would cost the city $5.6 million and reshuffles longevity money, which currently rewards those with 10-plus years working for the city, into a different type of pay scale that doles out step increases more regularly throughout employees’ careers. But union representatives say they want more and negotiations are far from final.
Leading the fight are organizers for the Department of Public Works, firefighters and police officers. The union representatives for the Public Works employees and firefighters say workers deserve at least a 6 percent raise, and both groups balk at the idea of giving up benefits. The police union representative said he cannot comment until their negotiations are wrapped up.
The pay raise saga started in 2012, when the Metro Council voted to authorize a study to determine if city workers were underpaid. One year and $160,000 later, the study showed that many city workers are, indeed, not making as much money as government workers in cities the study compared to Baton Rouge, such as Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Augusta, Georgia. The study did find, however, that the city-parish government offered comparatively generous benefits, such as allowing employees to rack up unused sick leave to cash out upon retirement.
After a fair amount of debate, the Holden administration didn’t embrace improving employee pay, and a majority on the council members ultimately voted to accept the 2014 budget without pay raises.
Fast-forward to present day, and the pay raises in play still are not expected to go into the 2015 budget.
Instead, Daniel said, the administration hopes to pass a budget supplement between January and March that would include money for the increases. Daniel has emphasized that the employees cannot have everything and said it is nearly impossible to squeeze into next year’s budget the proposed 2 percent raises.
Before the Metro Council, Daniel emphasized that there has to be some kind of trade-off between pay and benefits. “Because if you give a pay raise now based on the retirement and sick leave policies we have, it’s going to put so much stress on our retirement system. And our retirement rates are going to go up,” he said. “It is not going to be something that we can sustain long-term.”
He also defended the pace of change, saying it has just been part of the process. “While I understand their frustration, I certainly don’t think that anybody any time was dragging their feet on this,” Daniel said.
Count Michael Ringe, a 58-year-old treatment plant operator, as one of those frustrated workers. Ringe said he came to work for the city more than seven years ago because he was attracted to the benefits and retirement. His coworkers told him that his pay would be bad, but the retirement and benefits would make up for it.
Ringe started off making $11.51 an hour. He has now moved up the pay scale to $16 an hour.
He said the city’s Public Works Department will not be able to attract talented employees without the generous benefits he was promised and that a 2 percent raise will not make up for losing the benefit perks of government employment.
“My first raise was 32 cents,” Ringe said. “Two percent of nothing is nothing.”
Many DPW employees have pushed for 6 percent pay raises, which were modeled in the study. Across the board, 6 percent raises would cost the city $16 million.
Public Works employees are also worried that many of their coworkers will not ask for raises because they are too afraid of losing their jobs. They face another problem in creating a united front — many employees cannot attend Metro Council meetings because they work second jobs.
“Having two jobs is the only way people make it here,” said Alvin Rattle, a union organizer and former DPW electrician. “Or you’ve got a rich wife.”
Under the new plan, the lowest-paid city workers will receive a boost from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour. Daniel said most of those who already make less than $9 an hour are students, part-time or seasonal workers.
Firefighters are the only subset of city workers who have not seen any of their proposed pay changes yet. Firefighter union president Shane Spillman said he will meet with Daniel and others Monday, but he is already worried.
“We don’t want anything to change,” Spillman said. “My guys have told me they don’t want a pay raise if they lose any benefit.”
Chris Stewart, the police union president, said their negotiations are still on the table as well.
He declined to comment further until a plan for police officers is finalized, which he said could take a few weeks.