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Photo by Kerry O'Donnell—courtesy of SMEA.
Photo by Kerry O'Donnell—courtesy of SMEA.

Long-awaited wage study could arrive by end of November

(Somerville Wire) – The Somerville Municipal Employees Association reported several more workers quit their positions this week, amidst ongoing wage negotiations with the City. Ninety SMEA employees have left their jobs this year, leaving 40 vacancies, according to a social media post from SMEA published Monday.

SMEA—which represents 200 of the City’s staff spanning 32 departments—has waited on a new contract since June 2022. The delays have stagnated wages for SMEA workers and many are beginning to leave their jobs, and sometimes the city, in search of higher pay. 

“We just lost a great person. A 30-year-old with a pregnant wife who worked on small engine repair within the grounds division,” said SMEA President Ed Halloran. “He got an interview with Eversource and is getting 10 dollars more [per hour]. I told him he has to go. We’re losing people who have invested in this city and really want to be here.”

The purported reason for the delay is a wage study that according to the City of Somerville, “both parties mutually agreed to pause negotiations to allow the City to complete.” But since the study began in spring 2023, five months after SMEA’s contract expired, the only agreement the parties have reached is that the study’s taken way too long. 

Halloran said the City told him the sheer size of SMEA has delayed the process. Although the Somerville Wire asked for a response from Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, Grace Munns, deputy director of the Office of Communications and Community Engagement provided a statement from the City explaining that, “the study’s goal is to gather data that will allow us address not just fair wages comparative to other communities/employers, but to identify inequities that may exist—including gender inequities, in how the City pays workers performing the same or similar work across departments and unions. This type of project demands careful research and a thoughtful and comprehensive approach. The study is well underway, but has taken longer than expected.”

As the study trudges along, skepticism and fatigue is growing. “I don’t think the City is acting in bad faith,” Halloran said. “But we’re frustrated waiting for this wage study and I’m not sure they’re going to include important parts, like losing four years of pay.” The City has yet to completely rectify the impacts that budget cuts, after the 2009 financial crisis, had on employee’s wages. 

In the meantime, Halloran says the union’s done its homework, calculating wage differences between Somerville and its neighboring cities, and holding demonstrations in Davis and Union Square.

“We don’t know what this study is going to provide, but I don’t want a quick one-year deal. That will just let the City drag its heels and keep us quiet. We want it to be something for the future, aligned with the rates we’re seeing in neighboring towns,” Halloran said. 

During Somerville’s annual Truck O’ Treat event, a Halloween event featuring the Department of Public Works and the Parks & Recreation Office, SMEA members carried signs asking for support and gave video testimonials for their units, urging the City to recognize the crisis.

“Morale is not good. A lot of our department has been outsourced,” said Anthony DeVito who has worked in the Water and Sewer Department for 25 years. 

Steve Ross, who’s worked in the Inspectional Services Department’s Weights and Measures unit for 18 years, echoed DeVito. “The prior administration beat up this union pretty well. The experienced people hang on, but new guys move on for better pay. Who can blame them?”

Bridgett San Soucie, a new principal clerk in the Traffic and Parking Department, said greater compensation would help reduce turnover. “You can’t take a breath and sit down on this job, it’s nonstop. People are out the door waiting and the clerks work really hard. For such a high stress job, to see what we’re getting paid. It’s very disheartening. We need to be on par with other cities,” she said.

Many SMEA workers have come forward to demand the City pay local workers more instead of outsourcing jobs to contractors. Asked why the City is hiring contractors, often at double the pay rate, instead of hiring locally, the City statement provided by Munns said,  “Like cities and employers across the region and nation, we are facing ongoing worker shortages. As a result, contractors have been hired when necessary, and they are only used when the work is vital to City operations. This is not considered a long-term or preferred solution by the City, and every effort is underway to hire permanent employees in vacant City positions, including SMEA positions. Part of that effort includes acting in good faith to inform and advance contract negotiations with SMEA,” Communications said.

Halloran suspects the pay study will be completed by the end of the month. At which point, Ballantyne will be presented with the numbers and sit down with SMEA a week later. 

Members of the Somerville Municipal Employees Association will lead a protest in Union Square on Saturday at 2PM to raise awareness of the issue.

This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service—a project of the IRS 501(c)(3) tax-deductible nonprofit Somerville Media Fund.

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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire

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