Courtesy of Gilda Herrera

Two dozen members from city employee unions gathered at City Hall last week in a show of support ahead of contract negotiations with the city.

The new contract under negotiation is already two years late. The last agreement between the city and the two unions — Local 3144 and Local 844 — expired in 2020. Local 3144 and Local 844 represent city managers and clerical workers, respectively.

About a dozen librarians were present at last Monday’s rally. Several told the News that they felt underpaid and overworked.

“We just want a fair contract,” said Gilda Herrera, president of Local 3144. “Everybody wants to be treated with respect. Everybody wants fair wages. And everybody wants benefits that make you want to stay. That’s all.”

Herrera said her union is focused on reaching fair terms for members’ pensions, healthcare and salaries. 

Employee retention has been one of the recent major challenges faced by New Haven libraries and other city departments. 

According to Phillip Modeen, Local 3144 representative and a children’s librarian, librarians in New Haven are some of the lowest paid in the state, making between $7,000 and $10,000 less than those in other towns and municipalities.

For Modeen, the goal of these contract negotiations is to create terms that will bring in and retain new talent, so that the New Haven city government does not become a “stepping stone” for workers who quickly move to other municipalities.

In addition to addressing issues of salary, members of Local 3144 hope that ongoing negotiations will produce a contract that reduces their currently unmanageable working hours. According to Herrera, the overload is the result of many employees departing to neighboring municipalities due to low pay in New Haven. She said that the remaining employees have needed to pick up their slack yet have not received overtime. 

Additionally, in their budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year, the city committed to having libraries open on Sundays, which has further burdened librarians. 

“We’re really stretched,” Modeen said. “It would be great if we could open seven days a week, but we are stretched as it is.”

Modeen added that covering these extra shifts has been particularly difficult as, due to the low city salary, he and his peers often also have to work multiple jobs to support themselves. To make working Sunday hours mandatory without overtime pay “takes away our opportunity to supplement that income that we’re not receiving.”

Herrera noted that there is a misconception in New Haven that city employees do not do very much. Instead, she described how the IT team that she heads for New Haven Public Schools often cannot meet demand, with their phones constantly ringing off the hook. 

“We’re understaffed,” Herrera said. “We are all being tasked with doing additional duties. I don’t know of any department that isn’t suffering some sort of staff shortage. That’s actually why we came together. I wanted them to realize this isn’t just a 3144 issue.”

Modeen hopes that this contract will allow him and his peers to focus on interacting with the community and their families, no longer worrying about how they will make ends meet. 

Mayor Justin Elicker acknowledged the workers’ demands, noting that shortages are present in nearly every department — notably, he said, the police department that has over 100 open positions. 

Elicker said that negotiations are moving fast, and he hopes that a new contract will be able to attract and retain employees, citing recent success with the teacher’s union. He added that the city government faces significant financial problems including high and rising pensions, debt and healthcare costs. 

“We need to make sure we get those costs under control,” Elicker said. “And those costs are closely tied to our union contracts and the benefits that employees receive and the wages employees are paid. And so, I need to balance ensuring employees are treated respectfully, as far as their salaries and benefits, and the financial health of the city.”

Elicker said that though many people believe that the city government itself is the problem, state structures and the restrictions of New Haven’s tax base underpin its financial challenges. Elicker described how in a typical city, wealthier areas on the outskirts — like Woodbridge, Hampton, East Haven and West Haven — would be part of the tax base. 

This is not the case in New Haven. Between the limited size of New Haven and the large portion of tax exempt property, the city is in a uniquely precarious economic position. 

“We’ve all had a very stressful two years,” Herrera said. “All these things, inflation, COVID, all these things. Emotionally, mentally, people are drained, and then when they look at their paycheck, they’re like, ‘oh my god, we are drained. And I don’t see the return.’”

Local 3144 represents more than 400 municipal employees in New Haven. 

Khuan-Yu Hall is the City Editor at the News. He is a sophomore in Davenport, from Hartland, Vermont, double majoring in Statistics and Data Science and Ethics, Politics, and Economics.