Scranton (PA) Mayor Chris Doherty defied a judge’s order on Friday and paid city workers only the minimum wage. The Mayor claims the city has no money to pay their actual salaries and will make it up “when cash flow improves.”
In defiance of an injunction issued in Lackawanna County Court, hundreds of city employees will open their checks today to find they were paid only minimum wage for their work.
Amid Scranton’s ever-deepening financial crisis, Mayor Chris Doherty said his administration is going forward with a plan to unilaterally slash the pay of 398 workers to the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour with today’s payroll, insisting it is all the city can afford.
Without a bankruptcy filing (which might be the correct way for a city to try to get out of its contracted pay obligations) Scranton is in uncharted territory here: unilateral contract modification is one thing (certainly illegal) but defying a court order is quite another. Setting to one side, of course, the burning issue of for how long police, firefighters, and other public works employees will show up at work for minimum wage.
So far, folks are coming to work.
“The judge was pretty clear about it. The employees are not part of the fight between the mayor and council. It’s a quandary. All I know is I need protection for my people,” said Det. Sgt. Bob Martin, president of the police union. “We’re coming to work. We’ll be there to protect the citizens until these people figure this out.”
Sam Vitris, president of the Department of Public Works union, also said his membership would still show up for work even with minimum wages.
“That’s our jobs and we’re going to continue to do our jobs, but we want this problem fixed,” Mr. Vitris said. “I hope the injunction opens eyes of everybody that this is very important to us and we want it resolved.”
John Judge, president of firefighters union, said the administration should be cautious about deliberately violating Judge Barrasse’s injunction.
Although he believes administration officials when they say they do not want to cut wages, Mr. Doherty also has an obligation to get the matter resolved, he said.
“It’s not our problem,” Mr. Judge said, adding firefighters also will continue to work even if they do not receive their full pay.
If the judge cannot enforce his order of last Thursday that city employees’ contracts be honored in their pay packet, a terrible precedent will have been set: a judge’s order ignored; a mayor acting unilaterally contra contracts signed by the city; police and firefighters wondering how long their pay will remain at minimum wage. Whether this civic insanity can be confined to Pennsylvania, and how quickly it will spread to other strapped cities (aren’t they all?) becomes a critical question.
You can believe other cash-strapped mayors are watching closely: Can he DO that? Can I?
How many divisions has Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge Michael Barrasse? For that matter, how many has Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty? If the Mayor’s shrug while turning out Scranton’s empty pockets is a valid response to a court order to honor employment contracts, you’ll see other cities try it too. Were I a union-contract municipal employee, I’d be at my kitchen table this weekend, drawing up a household budget based on the federal minimum wage.
For broke municipalities all over America, this story has “trending” all over it.