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Pay boost for service workers is defended

Legislation designed to push up the pay of janitors, security guards and groundskeepers at utility companies has created a holiday season lobbying spree now that the measure has been sent to Gov. David A. Paterson for consideration in his final days in office.

The pay boost affecting service industry workers on contract at utility companies presents a slippery slope, opponents say, because it broadens the state's prevailing wage payment requirements, beyond just public agencies or private entities on public works projects, that now must pay the higher rates.

Besides raising energy costs for gas and electric utilities by millions of dollars, which will get passed on to consumers, the bill will also end up impacting other employers, including those located in "business improvement districts," such as the 24-block Buffalo Place, according to opponents.

But Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat and sponsor of the bill in the Assembly, has a simple message: Calm down.

The lawmaker said the lobbying chatter over the bill is largely misplaced, and that after numerous changes to the original legislation, including an accompanying set of amendments that are also before Paterson, the only real change being made to state law is on utility companies.

"In reality, they want to keep saving money on the backs of working stiffs It's about dollars and cents," Gianaris said.

Supporters say that the bill will be limited to about 1,500 "service" workers on contract at utility companies in jobs like cleaners or watchmen.

Critics say the bill creates a precedent by expanding the state's prevailing wage law -- which demands higher pay based often on union-going rates in different regions across the state for specific job categories -- to now include service industry workers at private utility companies.

But supporters say that prior to deregulation of aspects of the state's utility industry, companies typically employed unionized workers to do things like mowing lawns around a power plant or cleaning inside the facilities. Over the years, though, many utilities have increasingly contracted out such work, and supporters of the bill say the result has been a hiring spree of cheaper labor, some at minimum wage levels of $7.25 per hour.

Gianaris rejects the precedent argument, as does Sen. Eric Schneiderman, another bill sponsor. Schneiderman, a Manhattan Democrat, is the attorney general-elect.

"The point is to get utilities to pay their people what they deserve," Gianaris said.

"These are far from your typical private companies," he added, noting utilities are state regulated and enjoy a slew of benefits and protections by the government, such as exemptions from negligence lawsuits for blackouts.

"Since they are obtaining all these tremendous benefits from the state, that gives the state an interest in assuring their workers are paid an appropriate wage," Gianaris said.

Prevailing wage rates, set by the Department of Labor, vary greatly by job category and region. Among service workers affected by the bill are janitors. In Erie County, an entity required to pay prevailing wages for a janitor must pay at least $8.90 an hour, plus other benefits. The same job in Albany must pay at least $9.75. In New York City, the pay rises to a minimum of $24.70 depending on the type of building where a janitor works.

Paterson will not publicly signal his plans for the bill, which was sent to him last week by the Senate to begin a 10-day clock for him to sign or veto it.

e-mail: tprecious@buffnews.com

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