Reduced to Minimum Wage: A Firefighter's Struggle

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Imagine you’re a city employee who works hard to earn $23 an hour. Then one day, the mayor of your town cuts your salary, and the salaries of 400 other city employees, to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

It sounds like a nightmare, but in fact, it’s real life for the city employees of Scranton, Pennsylvania. And it looks as though there are no easy solutions. After all, Scranton is in the midst of a $16.8 million budget deficit.

John Judge is a Scranton firefighter and president of the local firefighter’s union who is up in arms over the pay cut. "I went from taking home $1,500 after deductions, to getting a check [for] $530 [before deductions]. And I had eight days notice. I don’t know how the hell you could do it," he said in a recent phone interview. The members of Scranton's four public unions all suffered the cuts, despite their agreements with the government. 

"Now I have 131 firefighters who are wondering how they're going to make their mortgage payment and their car payments," Judge says. Some of the men even qualify for food stamps.

Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty is at the center of the crisis. He and the city council are locked in a battle over Scranton's budget, and no progress has yet been made. After the minimum-wage paychecks went out, the city had just $5,000 left over. However, Judge believes that he and his firefighters are being used by Doherty as political hostages to push the council's hand, as the city did pay off certain vendors it owed. "Basically, [the mayor's camp] was putting stuff out in the media to get us [public workers] to pressure council to push this mayor's agenda," he says. 

Doherty's proposed tax increase of 78 percent over the next three years was not approved by the city council, which then made some adjustments to try to ease that significant burden on taxpayers. Doherty vetoed that proposal, and has ignored a court order to reinstate the city workers' pay to regular levels. As a result, the mayor is currently facing lawsuits on behalf of the workers. 

Sam Vitris, the head of Scranton's public works union, echoes Judge's view that his workers are the victims of political infighting. "It's solvable if the two branches of government just sit down and compromise. So far, that hasn't happened, and the employees are caught in the middle right now of a political squabble," he told the AP. "What we're hoping for is they come to their senses and realize they are not only hurting the employees, they are also hurting the image of this city."

Despite the cutbacks, Judge's firefighters are conducting business as usual. "My guys are still coming to work for $7.25 an hour," Judge says. "They're running into burning buildings, they're pulling people out of cars. That's just the type of people firefighters are — they're resilient, and this guy [Doherty] has made us even more resilient for the ten-plus years of labor strife that we've had with him." 

"It's a bad situation, [but] it's politics."