Unions, Scranton clash over minimum wage pay cuts

Updated 7:15 p.m. ET

(CBS News) Amid a dispute with the City Council about raising funds for their cash-strapped Pennsylvania city, the mayor of Scranton faces a lawsuit from union workers after he cut their pay to minimum wage.

The attorney for three unions, including firefighters and police, said he expects to file several legal actions, including a motion to hold Mayor Chris Doherty in contempt of court for violating a judge's order to pay full wages.

"We've been busy," attorney Thomas Jennings told CBS News. "So much nonsense. [It's] really, really silly that we have to do something like this just to get paid."

Scranton, Pa.: We don't have money to pay workers

Doherty last week cut the pay for about 400 employees to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. He says it was the only way for the cash-strapped city to pay bills, and promises to restore pay once finances are stabilized.

On Friday Lackawanna County Judge Michael Barrasse held a hearing and ordered an injunction to unions challenging Doherty's decision. Jennings said one firefighter who testified was juggling three jobs just to support his kids.

Union worker Robert Pugliese's $19/hour paycheck was cut to $7.25 because as Pa. city struggles to address $16 million budget gap
Union worker Robert Pugliese's $19/hour paycheck was cut to $7.25 because as Pa. city struggles to address $16 million budget gap
CBS News

"You can make more money flipping burgers at McDonald's" than saving people's lives, Jennings said.

Robert Pugliese, who has worked for Scranton's Department of Public Works for 26 years, told "CBS Evening News" correspondent Elaine Quijano his $19-an-hour paycheck was cut to $7.25.

"Sad that it came down to this," Pugliese said. "I can't understand how it could get this bad. I could never run my household down this low. Don't know how they could run a city down this low."

The move comes during a dispute between Scranton's City Council over a financial recovery plan as it faces a $16.8 million budget deficit.

Doherty is in favor of a plan that would use bank loans to fill the budget gap, the Associated Press reported. The plan would also increase property taxes by 78 percent over the next three years and have a new garbage collection fee of $22 phased in over two years. But City Council members say the tax hikes are too much and want Doherty to find other ways to raise money.

"We don't have enough money. That's what it comes down to," Doherty told Quijano. After paying city workers, Doherty said Scranton only had $5,000 left and very few options.

"We would've lost the gas and the diesel for our police vehicles, our fire trucks, and our pack masters. We probably wouldn't have been allowed in the landfill to dump our garbage," he said.

City Council president Janet Evans blamed the mayor for the city's debt and ignoring other "revenue generators" proposed by the council, like a parking meter system and a parking tax.

In this file photo from Jan. 29, 2010, Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty speaks during a debate between the four Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania governor in Harrisburg, Pa.
In this file photo from Jan. 29, 2010, Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty speaks during a debate between the four Democratic candidates for Pennsylvania governor in Harrisburg, Pa.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

"His refusal to negotiate in good faith with police and fire unions over the past 10 years had recently resulted in a landmark Supreme Court award of $32 million that is crippling the taxpayers of Scranton," Evans told CBS News, adding: "Incessant lawsuits from years 2002 to 2012... has amassed historic debt in the city of Scranton."

The October state Supreme Court case found that the city would have to pay interest arbitration awards to police and firefighter union members, the Times-Tribune reported late last year.

Jennings said he doesn't think the mayor worked hard enough to find alternate solutions.

"This isn't a situation where they don't have the money, this is a situation where they don't have the will,"  Jennings said. "The mayor can't play nice with City Council, that's what's going on."

Jennings is representing the International Association of Firefighters Local 60, the Fraternal Order of Police E.B. Jermyn Lodge 2 and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 2305. The unions also plan on taking action in federal court against the city for allegedly cutting off disability payments and not paying overtime.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Scranton is home to about 76,000 people. The city's population has only declined since it peaked at 143,333 in 1930. City Council President Evans pointed out that Scranton has had the highest unemployment rate in Pennsylvania for 22 straight months (currently 9.2 percent) and a 24 percent poverty rate.

  • Sara Dover

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