Sadie Bograd, Contributing Photographer

In March 2020, New Haven’s municipal employees started to face the challenges of working during a pandemic: longer hours, larger workloads and greater health risks. Three months later, many of them — including housing inspectors, 911 operators and social workers — faced the added challenge of working without a valid union contract. 

The city’s contract with Local 884, New Haven’s branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, representing a variety of city workers, expired in June 2020. Since then, union leaders have attempted to schedule multiple bargaining sessions with the city’s Department of Labor Relations, but have made little progress. City employees in multiple departments are currently confronting understaffing, low pay and lack of morale — issues that they think an updated contract could help resolve, as they told the alders on the City Services and Environmental Policy Committee during a meeting last Thursday evening. 

“Despite the passion we bring for public service and supporting our community, overall morale among our members is low,” Kymberly Bray, president of Local 884 and a records clerk for the New Haven Police Department, told the alders. “We see our counterparts in other towns getting paid more money for doing less… Many of us feel that the city does not appreciate the work that we do. The fact that there has been no movement in negotiations since our contract expired in June of 2020 is making the situation worse.” 

Timothy Birch, AFSCME’s New England area field services coordinator, recounted at the meeting the union’s attempts to negotiate a new contract. Although the union held a few bargaining sessions with city officials last October, he said that “little progress was made.” The city canceled subsequent meetings, often citing scheduling problems. 

Turnover in the local Department of Labor Relations also made negotiations difficult, as the city recently hired a new labor relations director, Wendella Battey. Birch said the union has not yet been able to meet with Battey, but added that he is “hopeful” her appointment will be a “positive development” for the negotiation process. 

“We made proposals, and the city didn’t ask us any questions about our proposals,” Birch said. “So there really was no negotiation, right? There was an exchange of paper, but there was no discussion.” 

This is not the first time Local 884’s contract negotiations have been delayed. In response to a question from Ward 28 Alder Shafiq Abdussabur, Birch said that the union’s previous contract, which was in effect from July 2015 to June 2020, was not negotiated until 2017. 

About a dozen union members delivered testimony about the importance of an updated contract. Rolando Perez, a parking enforcement officer, told the alders that his hourly pay has increased by only 93 cents over the 10 years he’s worked for the city — an increase far below the rate of inflation over the last decade. Perez said that about half of his colleagues had left the department in the last two years “over either money issues or contract issues.” 

Employees in other departments described being similarly short-staffed, which in some cases led to mandatory overtime or an increase in work responsibilities outside of their job descriptions.

“Local 884 members are frontline city workers. The jobs we do cannot be performed remotely,” said Larry Dawson, a school security officer. “The city is not engaging in meaningful discussion with our union. By doing this, they are sending a message that we are not respected, appreciated or valuable, even after all we did throughout the pandemic.” 

The four alders in attendance at the meeting repeatedly expressed their gratitude for the work of municipal employees and their concern over the lack of progress on contract negotiations. The committee voted to draft a formal letter to the New Haven Labor Relations Division requesting that they move quickly to restart negotiations with Local 884. 

Local 884 represents 400 members, according to Birch. 

Sadie Bograd covers Nonprofits and Social Services. Last year, she covered City Hall. Originally from Kentucky, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in Urban Studies.