New York City's most vexing budget issue this year isn't a specific line item included in the actual budget – at least not yet. It's the "back pay" issue for city employees in all 152 city unions who have been working without contracts in some cases for five years. Continuing work under an expired labor contract because you can't agree on a new one means no raise.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer said it could jeopardize the city's "fiscal strength".
It's a difficult and emotional issue because it's the intersection of two critical points: the inequity of city employees going years (in some cases five years) without a raise and the need to balance a budget. Negotiating new city employee labor contracts is never easy. The "stranded" back pay issue makes it harder still. It makes it, understandably, a headline grabber and the source of endless discussion and comment. It's big stuff.
It's ironic that another group of thousands of workers delivering important public services are approaching a sixth year of no raises with little notice or media coverage. Those are the low-wage state human-service providers at state-funded nonprofits caring for many New Yorkers disabled, aged or otherwise vulnerable and in dire need.
These nonprofit employees' compensation rates are controlled by funding in state contracts. For five years now – and continuing for a sixth year in the currently proposed Cuomo state budget – the state has failed to budget any increase.
This affects nonprofit providers contracting with six state agencies: the Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, Office of Mental Health, Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services, Department of Health, Office of Children and Youth Services and the Office of Aging. It covers employees including direct care providers, cooks, maintenance workers and even social workers. Many are pretty low wage workers, struggling themselves. Mostly they'd find themselves on the wrong side of the mayor's Tale of Two Cities.
The workers, people generally recognize, have often very difficult and always emotionally trying jobs. They may come with the benefit of satisfaction in helping people in need, but dealing with people unable to care for themselves because of mental health problems, developmental disabilities or terrible disease and debilitating physical problems is inevitably trying.
We'd all like to believe we could do this kind of work – and most of us could for a few days – but the constant strain of that type of stress is beyond many of us. And that adds a dimension to the unfairness of six years without pay raises or COLAs for people already in low wage but vital service positions.
This year in proposing his executive budget Governor Cuomo once again deferred any cost of living increase, which the state figured otherwise would have been a 2 percent increase to keep pace with inflation, to save taxpayers $76 million. Last year the projection was the no-COLA policy, based on a 1.4 percent inflation rate, saved the state just over $44 million.
The state's own projections show the six deferred COLAs, including the one in the budget being debated now, were worth 11.7 percent. To be clear, that means those mostly low income service workers will have lost real earnings of nearly 12 percent to inflation just by standing still.
For a number of years, granting a cost-of-living increase to keep pace with inflation was a standard practice in the field, but after 2006 it became irregular. Now many impacted workers feel it has completely gone away.
In recent budgets the hoped-for COLA was taken as an offset—in other words, figured in the budget and then taken out and shown as a cost cut to save money. Whether the workers deserve to keep up with inflation more than taxpayers deserve not having to pay for it might be debatable. Maybe. In any given year. But a six-year COLA hiatus is harder to justify.
"In a perfect world people should get raises when they deserve a raise," says Cuomo. "It's not a perfect world…" But the human-service workers with no raise and no COLA I spoke with found that cold comfort. They all mentioned far better off public service providers who get raises or COLAs and perform their work in somewhat more comfortable environments.
The current budget proposal does "project" giving COLAs to the workers in future years. That also didn't impress the workers I spoke with.
It's hard to argue that these workers don't have difficult and demanding jobs, or that they're overpaid. "People doing God's work for us can't do it on pennies" according to Ron Soloway, Director of Government and External Relations at the UJA Federation of New York. He has a good point.
Being left out of the proposed budget for a sixth consecutive year, with no relief in the governor's recent budget amendment, seems like a bleak status for the workers affected. But there may be light for them at the end of the budget debate tunnel.
In February a resolution passed the state Assembly proclaiming "Direct Caregivers Day" and recognizing these workers as "key members of the health care system." It said they "carry out their life-affirming tasks despite low wages" and "about 45 percent of direct caregivers live in households earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level income, and 46 percent of direct caregivers use public benefits such as Medicaid or food stamps."
Over 100 members of the state Assembly signed a letter to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver requesting the 2014-15 budget include the human-service employees COLA. Calling the COLA "years overdue" they referred to it as a living wage for workers "closest" to vulnerable New Yorkers. The signers urged the speaker "to make this a priority" in budget negotiations.
Apparently the speaker has made it a priority, including it in the draft Assembly budget bill. So far, there's still no indication the Cuomo administration will accept the COLA and there's some talk the Senate Republicans and the Independent Democrats who jointly make up the Senate majority may include the COLA at 1 percent.
And so the negotiations continue on a budget that's to be enacted before March turns to April Fool's Day.
Budgets inherently involve trade-offs; not every worthwhile initiative can ever be funded and any new funding involves foregoing some other worthwhile outcome. That's why people refer to budgets as moral documents.
No one ideologically opposes a modest COLA for what all call valued direct human-service providers. The question is whether $76 million can be found in a state budget of well over $90 billion that proposes $2 billion in tax relief to corporations, manufacturers who own property, virtually all upstate manufacturers, property owners, renters and anyone paying estate taxes, among others.