Firefighters, other Scranton public employee wages suddenly cut to minimum wage
In the midst of a budget struggle, the mayor of Scranton, Pa., can't get an agreement with the City Council. So, recently, he decided to cut the wages of the town's employees to the federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, despite the fact they have contracts stating otherwise. This includes firefighters and other public employees.
Public employees in Scranton, Pa., got the shock of their lives recently.
Almost over night, the mayor of the town cut the salaries of 400 city employees to minimum wage, $7.25 per hour. That's firefighters, public works and other municipal employees, gone from making $23 an hour to less than one-third of that.
It sounds like a nightmare, but it's real life, and it looks as though there is no easy solution. Scranton is in the midst of a $16.8 million budget deficit, and the mayor was trying to make ends meet.
John Judge is a Scranton firefighter and president of the local firefighter’s union. He and his colleagues are up in arms over the pay cut.
"I went from taking home $1,500 after deductions, to getting a check (for) $530 (before deductions). And I had eight days notice. I don’t know how the hell you could do it," he said.
The members of Scranton's four public unions all suffered the cuts, despite their agreements with the government.
"Now I have 131 firefighters who are wondering how they're going to make their mortgage payment and their car payments," Judge said.
Some of the men have even qualified for food stamps.
Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty is at the center of the crisis. He and the city council are locked in a battle over Scranton's budget, and no progress has been made. After the minimum-wage paychecks went out, the city had just $5,000 left.
Judge believes he and his firefighters are being used by Doherty as political hostages to force the council's hand, because the city paid certain vendors it owed.
"Basically, (the mayor's camp) was putting stuff out in the media to get us (public workers) to pressure council to push this mayor's agenda," he said.
Doherty's proposed tax increase of 78 percent over the next three years was not approved by the city council, which made some adjustments to try to ease that significant burden on taxpayers. Doherty vetoed that proposal, and has ignored a court order to reinstate the city workers' pay to regular levels.
Lawsuits have now been filed as well.
Sam Vitris, the head of Scranton's public works union, echoed Judge's view that his workers are the victims of political infighting.
"It's solvable if the two branches of government just sit down and compromise. So far, that hasn't happened, and the employees are caught in the middle right now of a political squabble," he told the Associated Press. "What we're hoping for is they come to their senses and realize they are not only hurting the employees, they are also hurting the image of this city."
Despite the cutbacks, Judge's firefighters are conducting business as usual.
"My guys are still coming to work for $7.25 an hour," Judge said. "They're running into burning buildings, they're pulling people out of cars. That's just the type of people firefighters are — they're resilient, and this guy (Doherty) has made us even more resilient for the ten-plus years of labor strife that we've had with him.
"It's a bad situation, (but) it's politics."
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