Minimum wage for everyone! Scranton, PA mayor takes heat for slashing police, fire dept. paychecks

Scranton, PA
The mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania says he will defy a judge’s injunction and pay a few hundred city workers only minimum-wage because anything more will bankrupt the sixth-largest town in the state.

Nearly 400 city employees — including police officers, firefighters, staffers with the Department of Public Works and even the mayor — will be compensated with only $7.25 per hour starting with this week’s paycheck and continuing until Scranton can scrape together enough money to avoid bankruptcy.

Mayor Chris Doherty announced last Wednesday that 398 city workers will have their pay adjusted to the federal minimum wage starting with this Friday’s paycheck. On Thursday, July 5, unions representing local firefighters, police officers and other public workers filed a lawsuit to keep the city from breaking the salary agreements that are included in the contracts it has with its employees.

Lackawanna County Judge Michael Barrasse granted an injunction asked for by the International Association of Firefighters Local 60, the Fraternal Order of Police E.B. Jermyn Lodge No. 2 and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge No. 2305 early Thursday to stop Mr. Doherty from following through with his plan. The mayor says he has no other choice, however, and will have to ignore the court’s decision.

"The judge can rule against us, but I don't know how to pay the money,” the mayor tells Scranton’s Times-Tribune.

Thomas Jennings, the attorney representing the collective of unions, says separate contracts between the labor divisions and the city itself illustrate that the mayor cannot legally unilaterally slash pay without negotiations, but Mr. Doherty says, “What am I going to pay them with? We don't have the money."

City Solicitor Paul A. Kelly Jr. is backing the mayor’s plan as well. Responding to the judge’s insistence that the city compensate its staff as per their contractual salaries, Kelly says, “It’s not there.”

Doherty adds that the city has barely $300,000 to work with right now and even after adjusting this week’s paychecks to reflect the federal minimum wage, the city will have only $5,000 left over on Friday. By adjusting pay starting immediately, the mayor says the city will save $700,000 every two weeks.

Once Scranton has saved enough to get out of it debt, the city intends on paying back employees their deferred salaries. The Associated Press reports that Scranton’s current $71 million spending plan includes a $17 million deficit.

Judge Barrase will hear arguments from the mayor and city unions against on Friday when workers will rally for a more permanent preliminary injunction, but Doherty doesn’t see another solution right now.

Last October, Pennsylvania’s capital city—Harrisburg, PA—filed for municipal bankruptcy.

Update: this story was edited to clarify that Mayor Chris Doherty is also slated to be paid the federal minimum wage while the city tries to save money.