ITHACA, N.Y.—Tensions that had been brewing between the city of Ithaca and its workforce over the past few years came to a head over the last several months, with demonstrations from city workers and labor leaders playing out in front of the public at Common Council. A long-awaited compensation analysis was touted as a way to soothe, or at least address, some of those tensions, though it appears the study that was submitted late last year proves what city employees have been publicly arguing. 

The compensation study was conducted and presented internally but was obtained by The Ithaca Voice via FOIL request. The study was conducted on all of the city’s employee groups except for the Ithaca Police Department and the Ithaca Fire Department—leaving the Department of Public Works unit, the managerial group, the CSEA group, the executive association and the “confidential group,” which is executive assistants, office managers, HR assistants—not nearly as dramatic as it sounds. It used 2021 compensation data for the analysis. 

Some themes appear when considering the studies overall, which are presented as five individual documents which can be read at the bottom of this article—though note that the DPW numbers are no longer current as of the recent contract that unit agreed to with the city. The primary theme is that the City of Ithaca’s starting salaries are about 15-25 percent lower than the competitive median rate according to the market, with many maximum city salaries not even reaching the median market rate for those positions. 

City of Ithaca jobs are divided into grades (1-18 based on the job itself) and steps (1-5 based on experience). The rank of grade and step correspond with different wages and salaries, which are determined by collective bargaining agreements between the city and the unions representing those various positions. The study compares a single market median rate wage or salary figure to what a city worker gets paid in a similar or identical position. That makes the data a bit confusing to consume, since the market rate is presented as a constant while the city’s wages are presented as a range.  

Shown below is the full table of salaries for CSEA workers in the city. It shows that the city’s salaries don’t rise above market rate until step five, meaning for the first four years of employment workers are being paid, on average, under-market for the region.  

Every other group’s chart essentially tells the same story. 

City union leaders, who have come to the forefront over the last six months since successfully stalling the 2023 budget vote for week with an en masse display in November, had somewhat mixed reactions to the study. 

“The compensation study shows that if you work for the City of Ithaca, which is the City with the highest cost of living in the area, you can expect to be paid slightly below the regional median pay for your position,” said Jeanne Grace, the president of the Executive Association unit. “Keeping in mind that it takes you 5 years of employment in the position to reach that full pay rate, you are expected to accept being paid far below the median rate for those first 5 years of employment. In addition, the City has a history of not regularly raising wages enough to compensate for cost of living increases, so by the time you get to that median pay rate after 5 years, it is even farther below the actual median rate.”

The city will continue to struggle to “attract and retain the best talent in the region” if those figures hold, Grace said. To her, the study showed that the city has to raise wages and shorten the time to reach maximum pay to become competitive regionally.

In the studies, as experience increases and workers move along the aforementioned steps, the numbers gradually start to catch up to the median market rate and the comparative differences shrink—but the city is sometimes still behind the market even at its maximum. Across the city positions that were included in the study, most either come within 5-10 percent of the single median market rate or exceed it at the step four and five stage (meaning after four or five years of experience, generally). 

Still, though, the recommendations don’t conclude that the City of Ithaca should raise its initial hiring salaries for any positions, except for DPW, which came to fruition last week. While the report tacitly acknowledges the challenges that the city is facing regarding attracting DPW workers, it only recommends shortening the path to reach maximum salary. Regardless, the recent contract struck between the DPW unit and the City of Ithaca did substantially raise the starting wage for many positions in DPW. 

“As we consider changes for this group, the market has driven up the starting rates for these positions,” reads the recommendation in the study. “In light of the challenges that all municipalities are facing in this area, we recommend using four steps for these positions moving forward rather than five.” 

The study is surprisingly light on other materials beyond straight salary comparisons. Though compensation for workers from five units was studied, little other information is included other than a final page including a paragraph-long recommendation for each group. Two of those recommendations state that the city should increase its wages, while the other three yield no recommendation of raising wages, stating that the pay is in line with the other markets examined. 

In other words, the data shows clearly that the City of Ithaca’s compensation schedules lag behind the median market rates across a myriad of jobs, though the factors of why that is or if there is more the city can do to attract workers and pay competitively are not explored in the study at all. 

It does not appear that any city workers were interviewed as part of the analysis/study—at least, no interview quotes or materials are presented in any of the analyses. The study lists its sources as the Economic Research Institute, the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, the New York State Association of Counties, the state’s Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and “private peer data.”

Mayor Laura Lewis did not respond to a request for comment on the study results. 

Responses from local union leaders varied, though with a relative lack of information included in the study the reactions were not as strong as one might assume. Union leaders aren’t quite sure what to do with the information or how important it will be in ongoing negotiations, though the recently announced DPW contract, which was well-received among workers, provided some hope. 

“I am cautiously optimistic for the future of our bargaining unit’s ability to attain more realistic compensation offer from the city after seeing the results of recent negations with the DPW unit,” wrote Courtney McGuire, the president of the CSEA Administrative bargaining unit. “I am hopeful that the members of the Admin unit will see wages more on par with the findings of the study.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Managing Editor at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at