A group of about 20 city-parish workers stood on the steps of City Hall on Thursday afternoon calling on Mayor-President Kip Holden to provide raises for employees who they claim aren’t earning fair wages.
The news conference was organized by the Service Employees International Union Local 21, which represents many city-parish workers.
“City-parish workers provide essential services to the city. The toilets flush and the sewer system works because of them,” union President Helene O’Brien said. “The street lights work because of them and when there’s a storm, the first people out to clear debris are city workers making sure its safe for all of us.”
She said the city-parish needs to respect its workers and stop paying them “poverty wages.”
O’Brien said 751 city-parish employees earn less than $10 per hour, but she added that number includes seasonal workers.
She also said almost half of the city-parish’s 2,330 workers earns less than $15 an hour — 20 percent of whom have worked for the city-parish for at least 10 years.
“These are not starting workers, these are people who have been here for a significant time with the city,” O’Brien said.
Holden referred a request for comment to Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel.
Daniel said there will be no across the board raises in 2014 because there is no room in the budget.
He stressed the Mayor’s Office has budgeted for raises in the form of step increases and longevity pay every year.
Employees earn 3 percent step increases annually until they reach the ceiling. But after 10 years of service, employees receive a 5 percent longevity pay increase, with 1 percent increases annually.
“I think the majority of employees get raises every year,” Daniel said.
The union has argued many employees are no longer eligible for the increases.
Daniel acknowledged the city-parish’s pay structure is flawed because it’s too heavy in benefits at the expense of paying people better wages on the front end.
“Employees are getting 50 percent of their total compensation after they retire, and that’s just not a good model,” he said.
O’Brien said the city-parish has hundreds of vacancies because it cannot fill positions.
That means underpaid employees are working twice as hard to get the job done, public services are being compromised and morale is low.
Herman Addison, a DPW employee, said he is “drastically underpaid” and has to work two jobs to make ends meet.
“I just don’t have any belief in this job, but I have so much time vested with the city that I just can’t walk away,” he said. “We hope (the mayor) will find it favorable to find some money in the 2014 budget because we really deserve it.”
Almost two years ago, the city-parish commissioned a pay study to compare the city-parish’s wages and benefits with other cities and market conditions. Daniel said once the study is presented to the Metro Council at the next council meeting, the Mayor’s Office will start creating a more concrete timetable to approach salary increases.
However, some benefits could be cut in order to neutralize the cost, Daniel said. He said one example of a benefit that can be changed is leave time.
“We can accrue vacation unlimited so people retire a year or even two years early by taking their leave,” he said. “That’s just not what that was intended for.”
Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, said the low wages are a problem statewide.
The average worker in Louisiana is 35 percent more productive than workers in 1979, however, Moller said, over the same time, the median wage has increase only 1 percent, when adjusted for inflation.
He said when low income workers receive pay increases, the impact to the local economy is immediate.
“When you give a raise to someone with fairly low income, all of that money filters into the economy,” Moller said. “It helps the grocery stores where they shop. It’s not just an effect on the workers.”