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Council may force issue of seasonal wage hikes

Buffalo's control board has warned the Common Council that a push to give raises to seasonal workers who pick up trash, crossing guards, interns or other temporary employees would defy the wage freeze.

But some angry Council members criticized the control board, threatening to "call their bluff" by passing a bill that could force the issue.

The city hires more than 500 temporary employees in a typical year. Many seasonals are making $8.15 an hour, less than what the city requires most of its vendors to pay workers if they want city business. Buffalo's Living Wage Law forces companies that have major contracts to pay employees $9.03, or $10.15 if no health benefits are offered.

Members of the Living Wage Commission claim it's hypocritical that the city ignores its own law. At the same time, commission members are lobbying the Council for a cost-of-living adjustment that would raise the pay of all covered employees to $9.59 an hour in January, or $10.77 if health benefits aren't provided. Budget analysts estimate that the increase would cost the city $62,000 in the second half of the fiscal year if it is applied to city workers who aren't currently receiving the living wage.

When the Council's Legislation Committee met Thursday, it received copies of a letter drafted by an outside law firm that works for the control board.

"A city ordinance which would allow increases in wages and salaries would violate not only the language of the statute, but also the spirit and intent of the provision," wrote Peter J. Spinelli of Harris Beach Attorneys at Law.

But Samuel Magavern II, the Living Wage Commission's compliance coordinator, suggested that because seasonal workers aren't covered under labor contracts, the wage freeze shouldn't apply to them. He disputed the control board's claim that any individual who performs work has an "implied" contract. "I find it kind of far-fetched," Magavern said of the board's argument.

A union leader who attended Thursday's meeting was even more critical. Michael Hoffert, president of the Buffalo AFL-CIO Council, said any attempt to block modest raises for employees who represent "the poorest of the poor" is unconscionable. "Enough is enough, folks. It really is," said Hoffert, who implored the Council to stand up to the control board.

His message struck a chord.

"I'd like us to plod forward and force the control board's hand," said North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., who is sponsoring legislation to raise the living wage.

"Let's call their bluff," said Delaware Council Member Michael J. LoCurto.

Majority Leader Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr. said there's nothing stopping the Council from passing a resolution that supports raising the living wage, putting seasonal employees under the provision. But Bonifacio and others said they realize that even if such legislation is approved, the control board will likely continue to insist that any increases be suspended.

Peter Savage III, the Council's attorney, said any resolution should be worded in a way that recognizes the existence of the wage freeze. Savage said the Law Department agrees with the control board that no salaries can be increased until the wage freeze is lifted.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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