The City Council approved an unusual piece of legislation on Thursday that will raise the salaries of thousands of school bus drivers and others who work in the yellow bus industry, by using $42 million from the Department of Education's transportation funds.
But even supporters raised concerns about the precedent it would set.
Mayor Bill de Blasio portrayed the legislation as a corrective action for drivers, dispatchers and mechanics whose wages fell after the city eliminated employment protections from their contracts in 2013. "This is a rare circumstance," said Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who insisted the city could afford the controversial package.
According to their union, salaries for senior drivers fell from about $47,000 to around $24,000 once the bus routes were put out for bid without employee protections. That decision, by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, led to a month-long school bus strike. Bloomberg had argued that he was no longer bound to these protections after a court ruling, and that eliminating them would save the city hundreds of millions of dollars.
The legislation will give the bus companies grants through the Department of Small Business Services to restore the wages this school year.
The bill's co-sponsor, Mattieu Eugene of Brooklyn, said it made sense to help the workers, "At this moment when we have been striving to increase and to promote the quality of life of people by passing paid sick day and increasing minimum wage." He noted that the bus workers serve 50,000 children with special needs and that the raises will ensure those children are protected by experienced employees.
But Manhattan Democrat Dan Garodnick, who was among six members who opposed the bill, questioned what kind of precedent it would set for other industries that lower their wages.
"I think it's important to note that the bus companies that lost the bid here lost it because they were willing to pay more money to their workers," he told WNYC. "The 16 companies that won the bid were the ones that were willing to cut salaries. So we're now going to be supplementing the salaries of the workers of those wage-cutting businesses."
A few supporters of the bill expressed similar reservations. Harlem councilwoman Inez Dickens suggested the losing bus companies might even have a legal challenge.
The Citizens Budget Commission also questioned the decision to pass the bill outside of the normal city budget process.
"If you want to amend the contract, amend the contract," said the commission's president, Carol Kellerman. "Don't go around the contracting procedure to give vendors more money to deliver the same service that you already contracted for at a different price."
The de Blasio administration said this $42 million infusion is just a short-term fix, for one year, while it pursues legislation in Albany to restore the employee protections for bus drivers. But Staten Island Republican councilman Vincent Ignizio said that should have been the solution all along, instead of giving taxpayer dollars to private companies, which he said might even violate the state's constitution.