Together Baton Rouge going to bat for city-parish workers

Together Baton Rouge, a faith-based advocacy group, is wading into the debate over city-parish wages, siding with municipal employees who say they are underpaid.

The nonprofit, known for its active role in helping pass the Capital Area Transit System tax in 2012, hosted a meeting Friday afternoon with its membership to discuss the ongoing debate over wages paid to city-parish government workers.

Service Employees International Union Local 21, which represents some city-parish employees, has called on Mayor-President Kip Holden in recent weeks to provide pay raises for the city-parish’s lowest paid workers, many of whom are employed in the Department of Public Works.

The Mayor’s Office has said there is no extra money in the budget, so there will be no additional raises in 2014.

Together Baton Rouge leader Jan Boydstun said the group decided to take on the issue because the treatment of city-parish workers has an impact on the daily services provided to Baton Rouge residents. In addition, she said, most faith-based institutions believe in the idea of fair wages and treatment of employees in the workplace.

City-parish employees on average are paid 9 percent less than the market benchmarks of peer city employees, according to Together Baton Rouge’s analysis of city-parish data. DPW employees, however, earn 17 percent less than market benchmarks.

William Daniel, chief administrative officer, acknowledged this week that starting salaries are low, but noted that the city-parish offers a generous benefits package.

Together Baton Rouge’s report notes that city-parish employees also have to contribute more to their pensions than most city or state workers. City-parish workers must contribute 9.5 percent, while state workers contribute 8 percent, and city of New Orleans workers contribute 6 percent.

City-parish employees also do not receive Social Security, meaning their only retirement income comes from the Baton Rouge retirement system.

The city-parish does continue to offer annual 3 percent step increases and a 5 percent increase after 10 years with 1 percent increases ever year after.

But 30 percent of employees no longer receive the step increases because they’ve reached the ceiling, according to Together Baton Rouge’s report. And even with longevity pay, employees are still being paid below the market averages, the report says.

Together Baton Rouge leaders said the Metro Council should address the need to increase wages for the city-parish’s 750 most underpaid workers when it approves the city-parish’s 2014 budget in December.

The group’s leaders estimated the cost of providing such raises at about $1 million and suggested the money to pay for the increases could come from savings generated by the city-parish’s decision to end a $3 million subsidy it had been paying the Capital Area Transit System.

But Daniel said Friday that those funds were used to pay for a police academy this year and will continue to fund public safety.

SEIU Local 21 President Helene O’Brien said the union was “calling on the mayor’s office to remedy the problem, but if he doesn’t we’re going to call on the council.”

The mayor proposes the city-parish budget each year, but the Metro Council has the ability to move line items at the December budget meeting.

In December 2011, the Metro Council awarded the Constable’s Office $135,000 to give officers raises, despite objections from the mayor’s staff about moving the funds.

Finance Director Marsha Hanlon called the move fiscally irresponsible. But she noted that the Constable’s Office was only 20 people.

“That’s very small in comparison,” Hanlon said, referring to the proposed raises for 750 DPW employees. “We still don’t recommend paying for raises out of reserve funds.”

Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said she wants to see DPW raises in the 2014 budget.

“We should not want people working below the poverty wage rate,” she said. “Think of yourself in that place — how would you feed your family? Is it fair that they have to get two jobs in order to make one salary?”

Marcelle said it was too early to speculate about whether the Metro Council would try to make changes to Holden’s proposed budget. She said she’s optimistic that the Mayor’s Office will find the money.