Debate on wage proposal continued

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After a debate that carried lingering tensions from the recent moves to increase the pay of the mayor and City Council starting in the next term, consideration of a proposal that would set a minimum hourly wage of $12.75 for city workers was continued during Monday’s meeting of the council’s Finance Committee.

Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan and Citywide Councilman Steve Stycos sponsored the ordinance amendment seeking to establish the minimum wage, arguing that it would provide a needed – and deserved – boost for some of Cranston’s lowest-paid employees.

But other council members and representatives of Mayor Allan Fung’s administration questioned the equity of providing raises for some workers without increasing the pay of others, suggesting the move could sew workplace dissention. Others, including Ward 4 Councilman Ed Brady, said they needed more information before proceeding.

Ultimately, at Brady’s request, Donegan agreed to a motion to continue the discussion for two months as additional information is compiled by Finance Director Robert Strom.

All five participating members of the finance panel – Brady, Donegan, Ward 2 Councilman Paul McAuley, Ward 5 Councilman Chris Paplauskas and Ward 6 Councilman Michael Favicchio, its chairman – voted in favor of the continuance.

Council President Michael Farina recused himself from the discussion and vote, citing his father’s employment as a part-time city worker. Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins was not present for Monday’s meeting. Stycos, who took part in the debate, does not sit on the Finance Committee.

The proposal from Donegan and Stycos seeks to set a $12.75 minimum wage for all Cranston employees – excluding high school students, Cranston Public Schools employees and seasonal workers – as of Jan. 1, 2021.

That is the same point at which raises for the next mayor and council will take effect. The council has improved those raises – which will bring the mayor’s annual pay from $80,675 to $105,000 and yearly compensation for council members from $4,000 to $6,000 – in the form of two ordinance amendments. Fung, who will leave office before the measure takes effect, is letting both become law without his signature.

Donegan and Stycos announced their plans for the minimum wage push during the debate over the mayoral and council pay. Donegan said the proposal was based on information provided from the administration regarding the number of city employees who earn less than $15 an hour. He said the increase would have a positive financial impact of roughly 70 families, with some workers seeing an increase of more than $2 an hour.

He also said the overall financial impact would be essentially the same as the initial version of the mayoral and council pay increases, which sought to pay the mayor a $125,000 salary and council members $8,000 per year.

Strom said the city currently employees a total of 120 part-time workers, include some on a seasonal basis. The part-time include employees of the Cranston Public Library system, the Cranston Police Department, the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Cranston Enrichment Center and the Veterans Memorial Ice Rink.

He said 65 workers currently make less than the $12.75, including some who are paid the state minimum wage of $10.50 an hour. The overall annual cost of the new minimum wage would be approximately $78,000, he said.

Ed Garcia, director of the Cranston Public Library, said the library is “generally in support of this ordinance” but wants to preserve a pay classification structure established for its workers a couple of years ago. He also requested that shelvers – roughly 95 percent of whom are high school students, with the rest college students – be excluded from the $12.75 minimum.

Director of Administration Daniel Parrillo said the administration is “against this in general, just as a matter of equity.”

“We don’t feel that 65 employees of the city should get a raise and the other 600 don’t get a raise,” he said. “I think that would create workplace issues … it should be something more across the board, for all employees.”

He later added: “The correct time for this is during budget season.”

Donegan countered that he does not believe the creation of a minimum wage would lead to issues in the workplace, and that he believes it would instead set a new benchmark for talks regarding pay in the future.

“I believe that this would set, going forward, the minimum, so in future negotiations that $12.75 an hour minimum would have to be honored, so I would respectfully disagree that this would cause any sort of workplace tension,” he said.

He added later: “These are people that aren’t at the table. And they need a voice.”

Donegan and Parrillo at one point engaged in a back and forth, with Donegan seeking “yes or no” responses from the director on a handful of questions.

“Is the administration against any minimum wage, setting any minimum wage in Cranston, that’s above the state?” Donegan asked.

“We want equity across the board … We’re opposed to giving raises to particular individuals and not across the board,” Parrillo replied.

Donegan then asked: “Does the administration feel that there’s any employee in the city of Cranston who’s not worth $12.75 an hour?”

Parrillo suggested Donegan was engaging in “semantics,” and responded: “I’d like to pay everyone as much as we possibly could, but that’s not a reality.”

Stycos spoke of the minimum wage issue in particularly strong terms, dismissing many of the arguments and criticisms that were voiced.

“What we have here is a group of people, apparently, who have not worked part time, either ever or in a long time. Because if you’ve worked part-time for these kind of wages, you’d realized that they’re getting screwed. These people, they don’t get raises because they’re not in a union, and the administration, it’s not on their priority list. So it’s time for the council to step in and say, ‘Let’s do a little bit,’” he said.

He added: “People need to realize these part-time employees are being underpaid, they're being exploited. Basically, the library would not be able to function without them … And they deserve a raise, just like the Fire Department deserves a raise, and the Police Department, and everyone else. These people, year in and year out, are forgotten, unless the council does something.”

Favicchio said he did not believe council members had enough information regarding the duties and responsibilities of the employees, and echoed Parrillo’s concerns about fairness.

“I’m just concerned because I know that we have a lot of full-time employees that have worked for many, many years. And they weren’t making that or just slightly above that for working full time,” he said.

Assistant Solicitor John Verdecchia suggested that the minimum wage proposal could complicate future collective bargaining talks, with unions argument that the city has engaged in “cherry-picking which employees it wants to give raises to” while its members are “bound by a contract.”

In other business, the committee unanimously gave its backing to a collective bargaining agreement reached between Cranston Public Schools and the Tradespeople Unity of Rhode Island Laborers District Council 1322.

Joseph Balducci, chief financial officer for the school district, said the bargaining unit includes eight tradespeople and four bus mechanics. He said the agreement was part of a wage re-opener in the unit’s current contract, and provides a $1 hourly raise – equivalent to a 3.9 percent increase.

The agreement now heads to the full council for consideration later this month.

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