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In Scranton, Pa., City Workers Sue Over Having Wages Slashed

Roger Leonard, a heavy equipment operator for the city of Scranton, Pa., saw his pay plunge to $340 from about $900 for two weeks' work after the mayor cut city-employee pay to minimum wage.
Jeff Brady
Roger Leonard, a heavy equipment operator for the city of Scranton, Pa., saw his pay plunge to $340 from about $900 for two weeks' work after the mayor cut city-employee pay to minimum wage.

The city of Scranton, Penn. now faces two federal lawsuits over a decision last week to slash public employee's pay to minimum wage. Unions representing the city's workers also are asking Lackawanna County Judge Michael Barrasse to hold Mayor Chris Doherty in contempt of court.

Doherty cut all city workers' pay to $7.25 an hour, saying Scranton had run out of money. Doherty, a Democrat, and the Democratic city council have been fighting since last fall over how to fill a $16.8 million budget hole. Without a resolution, the city is in a cash-flow crisis and can't pay its bills.

Ten former police officers and firefighters on disability are suing the city in federal court. The disabled workers say their pay was reduced to minimum wage without the required hearing under Pennsylvania law.

In a separate federal class action suit, workers from various city departments claim Scranton's leaders violated U.S. labor law by failing to pay overtime. Both suits seek to have wages restored, back pay and attorney fees.

Scranton has had financial troubles for a couple decades now. A troubling mix of declining population since World War II and economic hard times has stretched finances.

Doherty has proposed increasing property taxes 29 percent to fund the city's operations this year and give banks the confidence they need to lend the city money to get past the current cash crunch. The council wants to find other sources of revenue — such as payments from tax-exempt non-profits like local universities.

Doherty on MSNBC Tuesday said he's called for higher taxes in the past and still been re-elected. "[Y]ou have to tell people, here's what our costs are and here's how we get through it. Because we need the confidence of the banking community and we have to be in it together. If you want services, you have to pay for them," said Doherty.

Neither Doherty nor City Council President Janet Evans has responded to NPR's requests for interviews in recent days. Doherty did talk with NPR last Friday and said: "If they [council members] had gone with my budget, we wouldn't be having this discussion. The taxes would have been raised. The bills all would have been paid because we would have had a dedicated revenue stream."

In June, Doherty filed a lawsuit against the city council, trying to force members to pass a revised recovery plan for the city. In that lawsuit he said the city's insurance company, fuel supplier, a landfill where the city dumps its garbage and Scranton's water supplier all were threatening to cut off services unless they were paid. As of June 20, Doherty said the city had amassed accounts payable totaling $3.5 million.

After paying workers minimum wage last week, the city reported it had only about $5000 in the bank. Since then the city has brought in more revenue, but not nearly enough to cover back wages that are estimated at over $1 million.

Given increasing media attention and a worsening problem — not to mention that city workers are now earning less than many fast-food workers — you might think the mayor and city council would be working on a resolution to the problem. But there is no indication that's happening.

[Jeff Brady is a NPR National Desk reporter based in Philadelphia.]

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Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.