For months, two employees of ReCommunity—the for-profit company contracted to run the county’s Solid Waste Facility—have called for an expansion of the Tompkins County living-wage policy to cover contract employees.
And they may just get what they asked for, courtesy of taxpayer funds.
Or at least that’s the plan.
With their likely adoption of next year’s county budget on Tuesday night, Tompkins lawmakers will also give the okay to earmark exactly $100,000 of property-tax money to help subsidize the payment of living wages to select county contractors.
The budget earmark is considered a small victory in the local living wage fight, said Pete Meyers of the Tompkins County Workers Center, which has rallied in support of living wages.
“It’s progress,” he said. “It’s a small victory on the way to the larger victory.”
Like anything, it comes with a cost.
The $100,000 in taxpayer funds, which by itself represents nearly a quarter-percent increase in the property tax levy, was initially marked for the county’s contingency fund—the pot to pay for unexpected expenses in 2014. But, in a 10-5 vote last month, the county legislature instead allocated the funds to a living wage subsidy. Tompkins is now in the position to cut a check for a for-profit company’s payment of the living wage.
“I’m uncomfortable with the notion of claiming Tompkins County as a living wage employer if we’re achieving that by knowingly privatizing work at lower wages,” said county Legislator Carol Chock, who proposed the living wage amendment with fellow Legislator Nate Shinagawa at a legislative meeting last month. “I introduced the motion,” she said, “to show good faith that we were willing to make a start toward improving our contracts.”
It remains to be seen how that money will be spent, if at all, said Legislator Jim Dennis, who heads the county budget committee and sat on a county-formed living wage group.
“It’s a long contract. From my point of view, I’m not sure we’ll spend a dime of that [$100,000],” Dennis said. “We have to sit at the table with them.”
Tompkins County leaders are in the process of initiating talks with ReCommunity about the feasibility of paying living wages. However, Tompkins is first weighing the legality of opening up such talks, Chock said, since ReCommunity is in the middle of a 10-year contract and is not contractually obligated to up its wages. Solid Waste Facility management has said ReCommunity employs 16, and all but six—four full-time and two temporary employees—get a living wage.
Tompkins County is a certified living-wage employer, meaning that each of its 720 employees is paid at least the living wage. In Tompkins, the recently updated living-wage standard, determined every two years by Alternatives Federal Credit Union, is $12.62 per hour with benefits and $13.94 without. However, the county’s living-wage policy does not extend to employees who work for companies hired out by the county for services. This discrepancy was first brought to light early this year, when two ReCommunity employees —Stanley McPherson and Milton Webb—began attending meetings of the county legislature. Clad in their canvas work clothes, they pressed lawmakers for living wages for contracted workers.
In response, the legislature formed a working group to examine the county’s 10-year-old living-wage policy, which encourages, but does mandate, contractors to pay their employees a living wage. Imposing a blanket living-wage mandate among all county service contracts is estimated to cost upwards of $2 million, according to county administration.
Meeting approximately ten times, the working group—headed by County Administrator Joe Mareane—sketched out a “practical and reasonable” approach for identifying those contractors who should be paying living wages. Chief among those parameters is an established threshold that narrows in on any company with a county contract exceeding $50,000 net cost. There are approximately 51 such service contracts, according to county records from 2012. (ReCommunity is the eighth highest contract at a net county cost of $320,400; Racker Centers is number one at a little over $1 million.) Additionally, there are other criteria to weed out contractors who can’t pay a living wage, particularly those in the non-profit sector or service agencies whose wages are mandated by federal or state authority.
Those contractors that remain after the county’s weed-out process will be held to this new approach, Mareane said, and that could mean incorporating living wages into those contracts that are up for renewal. As Mareane noted, unlike ReCommunity’s long-term contract, most of the several hundred other service contracts with the county are renewed on an annual basis.
Next year will be an important one for living wage as it relates to county contracts, he said.
“The data-gathering may be as important as anything we do in the new approach to the living wage,” Mareane said. “By next April or May, we should have a precise understanding of contracts which are incorporating the living wage, or not, and the gap to get them there.”