ITHACA, N.Y. — After two years of working under an expired contract, workers in the City of Ithaca’s Department of Public Works (DPW) recently voted to overwhelmingly approve a new tentative agreement reached by the city and their union’s negotiating team. 

Justin Perkins, the union president of the city’s DPW unit, called the wage increases in the new labor agreement “life changing” for city workers.

Perkins believes the raises and change in the pay grade will make the city competitive in the labor market and help turn the tide on filling dozens of empty positions in Ithaca’s Department of Public Works. 

The workers that are a part of the DPW Unit, represented by the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) labor union, plow Ithaca’s roads after a snow storm, fix the city’s water and infrastructure when a pipe bursts, and keep city facilities tidy and operational.

Some positions in the previous contract for the CSEA DPW Unit had starting and max wages that would put the city in competition with employers like WalMart and fast food restaurants. Custodial workers had a starting wage of $14.26 and maximum pay of $17.12.

Under the new contract, the pay for the average worker in the DPW Unit is going to immediately increase between 17% and to 18% according to Perkins. 

“Yesterday, a guy throwing garbage in the back of the packer made $15.69 [per hour]. Today, he makes $19.62 overnight,” Perkins told The Ithaca Voice

Perkins, who works as a Heavy Equipment Operator for DPW, saw his hourly wage increase from $24.94 to $29.40. At the start of 2024, his wage will increase to $30.29, and in 2025 to $31.20.

Perkins stressed that the pay increases in the new contract are going to help many of the union’s members who were “basically living paycheck to paycheck.” 

The contract will expire at the end of 2025. DPW workers will be able to be receive some retro pay going back to the beginning of 2021.

The agreement comes after the city saw the tension at the bargaining table boil over in a public demonstration in November. Unionized workers from across the city’s public sector, including from police officers, to fire fighters, custodians and engineers, all demanded a change in behavior at the bargaining table from the city’s negotiating team.

The City of Ithaca, workers expressed, is being too hardball in negotiations. They expressed that workers were being asked to accept deals with uncompetitive pay despite struggling recruitment and retention efforts. These issues are acutely expressed in the city’s Department of Public Works

With the new agreement in place, Mayor Laura Lewis hopes it will begin to help “demonstrate how much city employees are valued. We’ve heard much about city administration not valuing city employees, and that is absolutely not the case.”

Organized labor in the city have banded together under the Ithaca Public Workers Coalition in an effort to advocate for better relations between the City of Ithaca and its public sector unions. Ithaca Police Benevolent Association President Tom Condzella said in a statement, “We hope that this success for the DPW workers marks the beginning of a better relationship between the City of Ithaca administration and all of their workers. There is much more work to be done but this agreement is certainly a good start.”

Members of the DPW Unit had previously rejected a contract offer from the city that would have given workers an average raise of about 13%. The new contract passed with 62 ‘yes’ votes, and 14 ‘no’ votes, with only three of 79 members of the DPW Unit not voting. 

The new contract is “a much better offer from the city than the initial one. Much better,” said Alderperson George McGonigal, who serves as Common Council’s recently appointed labor liaison. “The DPW Unit recognizes that. To me, I’m hoping that is a change in the tide for city workers and will send a clear message that the city wants to retain its workforce and pay them well.”

The major concessions that had to be made by the DPW Unit was on reducing the health insurance that its members received from an indemnity plan to a platinum plan, and also agreeing to a significant change in the way that DPW Unit workers are reimbursed for sick days upon retirement. 

Under the old contract, DPW workers had the option to trade in up to 110 sick days in exchange for a lump sum cash payment that corresponded to the city employee’s current rate of pay. Employees were able to use any remaining sick days to pay for extended health and dental insurance coverage from the city. 

Under the new agreement, workers in the DPW Unit can now only see 75 accrued sick days converted into their current rate upon retirement. The value of those 75 accrued sick days can be converted into a lump sum payment or extend health and dental insurance in retirement. 

“Health insurance is a big deal, and we disliked making the change. But in order to move forward, that’s what we need to do,” said Perkins.

The new contract does add a wellness program, which awards DPW employees with annual cash incentives of $2,000 if they receive a family plan through the city, or $750 for an individual plan. The requirements to receive the incentive includes hitting certain measurements on blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and stopping nicotine use. 

City officials have expressed that the City of Ithaca is faced with a financial liability of over $200 million associated with the health insurance benefits it provides and subsidizes for its retirees. As the cost of health care outpaces wage growth and adds strain to Ithaca’s municipal budgets, it seems clear that the city’s negotiation team will be fighting to broker labor contracts that reduce the amount of money that the City of Ithaca spends on health insurance for its employees and retirees.

The new agreement between the city and the DPW Unit was brokered after City Attorney Ari Lavine stepped down from the city’s negotiations team. The move came at Lavine’s own recommendation, and he was ultimately replaced as lead negotiator by Jim Roemer, a lawyer from the Albany, NY firm Roemer Wallens Gold & Mineaux LLP.

Following this, labor leaders and some city workers would organize an effort to try and have attorneys removed from the city’s and unions negotiating table, but McGonigal defended the need for lawyers to be present during contract negotiations.

“These are professionals that do this stuff. If you have a problem with your car, you want a competent mechanic to work on it, and these are competent mechanics,” McGonigal said.

Assistant Superintendent of DPW Mark Verbanic called Roemer’s presence at the bargaining table “a breath of fresh air.”

Verbanic said he considers the new contract a major win. 

“I’m happy that it’s moving forward. Let’s move forward,” said Verbanic. “Now we’re going to be able to retain and keep our members. Every few months I’m losing another member. I can build up a force that’s able to sustain the city, and be paid, and do what we need to do.”

Correction (03/10/2023): This article originally reported that workers in the City of Ithaca’s DPW Unit would only receive retro pay going back to the beginning of 2023 instead of 2021.

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn