New City Budget Could Ax 1 Out of Every 15 City Workers
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New City Budget Could Ax 1 Out of Every 15 City Workers

July 3, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—The coronavirus-austerity budget passed by the City Council July 1 could result in one out of every 15 city workers being laid off if labor costs aren’t cut by $1 billion within three months—and the unions representing them aren’t happy about that.

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Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association President Harry Nespoli is highly critical of the new city budget deal.

“That’s a thank-you we get for fighting the virus,” Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association President Harry Nespoli, who also chairs the Municipal Labor Committee umbrella group of city workers’ unions, told LaborPress bitterly. Sanitation workers and other city employees, he added, couldn’t work at home.

Trying to address the city’s budgetary issues “on the backs of labor,” he said in a statement, “is particularly ill-conceived now given that this same municipal workforce has continued to work day in and day out during the pandemic at great risk to themselves and their families, with some sadly making the ultimate sacrifice.”

The head of the largest city workers’ union had a more favorable attitude. AFSCME District Council 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido praised Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Council “for passing a fiscally responsible budget during the greatest financial recession we have seen in generations.” The budget “reinforces our safety net programs and takes bold steps to strengthen our public health institutions,” he added. “However, what we will not accept is the layoffs of 22,000 municipal workers, many of whom were deemed essential, and showed up to work every day to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The $88.1 billion budget, passed by a 32-17 vote, is $7.2 billion less than the de Blasio administration projected in February. City budget director Melanie Hartzog told reporters June 30 that it would reduce the municipal workforce, now slightly over 330,000, by about 1,600. It also freezes hiring except for public-safety and health personnel. 

“We’re in a massive fiscal crisis, unprecedented since the 1970s,” de Blasio said, as the city has lost an estimated $9 billion in revenue from the epidemic’s economic effects. Therefore, he added, the budget sets a target of $1 billion in labor-cost savings, the equivalent of about 22,000 workers—and if that isn’t met by Oct. 1, the ax will fall.

“I want to be very clear, we’re going to get to work with our labor unions to find that billion dollars,” the mayor continued. “We’re going to keep working on trying to get that stimulus in Washington, that borrowing authority in Albany. But if we cannot find a way, then October 1st looms as the day we would have to put into effect layoffs.”

“It falls on labor to turn around now and save as many people as we can,” says Nespoli. “But the city has to be serious about sitting down.”

Significant layoffs would mean that “the public is cheated out of services it deserves.” Workers’ morale would be devastated, he adds, recalling how he lost his job in the 1975 fiscal crisis just after he started at the Sanitation Department.

The alternative Nespoli and other union leaders recommend is giving workers incentives to retire early.

That would be the most painless way to reduce staff, says Robert Croghan, chair of the Organization of Staff Analysts, which represents the analysts who evaluate how well city agencies are functioning. “The way to handle this is to give the ones who want to go the chance to go first.” 

About 4,000 city workers took early retirement after the 9/11 attacks of 2001, he explains, and almost 18,000 did in the 1990s. The city’s pension funds are in good enough shape to handle the extra load, he adds. 

Before the threat of layoffs emerged, the most contentious part of the budget debate was the “defund the police” demand that $1 billion be shifted from the Police Department to education, youth, and social services. 

The budget will reduce police funding by about that much, but in a way that appears to please neither side. It achieves that figure mainly by shifting $400 million for school safety agents to the Department of Education and $350 million in projected overtime reductions, as well as by cancelling the incoming July police academy class of 1,163 future officers.

“Mayor de Blasio’s message to New Yorkers today was clear: You will have fewer cops on your streets,” Police Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch responded. “Shootings more than doubled again last week. Even right now, the NYPD doesn’t have enough staffing to shift cops to one neighborhood without making another neighborhood less safe. We will say it again: the Mayor and the City Council have surrendered the city to lawlessness.”

City Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), who voted against the budget, said in a statement that it “does not meaningfully shrink” police funding. 

“This budget does not rise to meet the moment of reckoning over racial justice and public safety,” he added. “Reducing police spending is BOTH the first step to transforming our approach to public safety AND a fiscal necessity this year.”

Teamsters Local 237 President Gregory Floyd, head of the union that represents the more than 5,000 school safety agents, told the Council in mid-June that moving them out of the Police Department would be “disastrous.”

The School Safety Division “actually already better achieves the goals of many police reform advocates,” he wrote in a letter. “The advocates generally tout diversity of the workforce, a community policing model, and ‘demilitarization’ as keys to improving police forces. School safety agents already reflect those objectives: Seventy percent of school safety agents are Black and Latina women; the vast majority live in the neighborhoods in which they work; and they do not carry firearms or chemical agents.”

However, he says the agents need the police connection because they often deal with violent crime, such as intercepting “hundreds of dangerous weapons” being brought into schools.  

The problem with the budget, Croghan says, is that the mayor had to get one enacted when “he doesn’t know what happens next, and neither do any of us.”

The cuts could become a lot worse, Croghan explains, if the state government doesn’t authorize the city to borrow money, if the federal government doesn’t give the state enough aid, or if the epidemic flares up again. In the 1975-77 fiscal crisis, about 50,000 city workers were laid off. 

“If we don’t get any money from Washington, we’re going back to the ’70s,” says Nespoli.

July 3, 2020

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