Thursday, June 13, 2024

Ed Halloran speaks at Thursday’s City Council meeting in a screen capture from Somerville city video.

Seven months have passed since municipal workers were told the city would conduct a compensation study to “identify market inequities” in wages paid by the city. The study has yet to be completed, resulting in the halting of city employee contract negotiations, Somerville Municipal Employees Association President Ed Halloran said.

Union employees have now gone 16 months without a contract, and are frustrated and wanting to resign, Halloran said.

Halloran and fellow union members attended and spoke at Thursday’s City Council meeting where Ward 5 city councilor Beatriz Gomez Mouakad brought forward a resolution for Mayor Katjana Ballantyne’s administration to provide an update on the study, with a timeline for its production, by the Nov. 9 council meeting.

Municipal employees have not seen an adjustment in wages since 2021 to account for inflation and a rising cost of living, Gomez Mouakad said, and the city has seen vacancies in every department and struggled to fill them. Yet the administration’s solution – outsourcing the work – is “costing the city 1.5 to two times the wage rate of union jobs,” she said.

“It’s sending a poor message to our workers, who do so much for us, to wait that time, and I think we need to focus and work with our workers to get proper raises and compensation,” Gomez Mouakad said. “Our city will collapse.”

There are more than 40 vacant municipal positions due to low wages, Halloran said.

Among causing other problems, that’s hindered equipment repair requests at the library, union representative and Central Library head of technical services Meg Ragland told the council.

When Ragland began work at the library two and a half years ago, she discovered a broken dehumidifier in the basement. Based on the deteriorating condition of the surrounding windowsills and walls, it had been out of service for a while. A repair order was made in August 2021, she said, and closed nine months later on May 6, 2022.

There were “no detectable repairs, no explanation offered,” Ragland said.

“My staff and I worked through another humid summer in 2022 and mold started to grow,” she said. “I raised the issue in contract negotiations and formulated a contract proposal to make this repair along with numerous other safety related repairs or renovations needed at the library.”

To figure out why the dehumidifier repair was taking so long, she attended a Safety Committee meeting with Human Resources staff where she learned that “part of the reason it’s not moving forward is because there are no plumbers on staff in the city now to handle such a work order,” Ragland said. “All those positions are vacant.”

While this reality “dismayed” her, she was not surprised.

“I hope that using contractors isn’t going to be a long-term solution,” Ragland said. “This is union work that should be performed by SMEA workers.”

Ward 2 city councilor J.T. Scott said he shared the frustration of union members and that the “lack of maintenance of our city is corrosive to the spirit of the people that live here now when we do not support our union workers,” Scott said. “The message is clear that this city does not care about its current residents.”

While he agrees that a timeline for when the study would be completed is necessary and appreciates the resolution brought forward by Gomez Mouakad, the city does not need a study to “know just how bad things are,” Scott said.

“Nobody knows the city and nobody will take care of the city better than the people who live here,” Scott said. “And when we contract and outsource this work, we are just flooding the taxpayer money out of the city, as opposed to putting it back in these residents’ pockets, to living wages, to fair wages.”

Council president Ben Ewen-Campen said he never thought it would take the Mayor’s Office more than a couple of months to complete the compensation study.

“The wages are negotiated between the union and the mayor’s office. In this case, that process hasn’t even begun yet,” Ewen-Campen said. “It is just incredibly frustrating that it’s gotten to this point and so I want to apologize to all of you.”

Halloran urged Ballantyne and her administration to release the compensation study results.

“Let’s work together to bring the same quality of life to union workers as we see in our counterparts and other municipalities,” he said.