A fiscal and political crisis in the nearly-broke northeastern Pennsylvania city of Scranton deepened Tuesday as public employee unions sought to have the mayor held in contempt of court after he defied a judge and slashed workers' pay to minimum wage.
Unions representing firefighters, police and public-works employees also filed a pair of federal lawsuits against Mayor Chris Doherty and the city that alleged violations of labor law and due-process rights.
Doherty last week ignored a court order and cut the pay of about 400 city workers to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The Democratic mayor said it was all the cash-strapped city of more than 76,000 could afford, promising to restore full pay once finances are stabilized.
"It's incredible," the unions' attorney, Thomas Jennings, said Tuesday. "I've never had a public official just say, 'I'm not going to obey a court order. I'm not even going to try. He can't tell me what to do.'"
Doherty is locked in a dispute with Scranton's city council over a financial recovery plan as it faces a $16.8 million budget deficit. The mayor didn't return a phone message from The Associated Press on Tuesday, but he told the Times-Tribune of Scranton on Monday that his administration and the council remained at stalemate over the $85 million budget.
"If I had the money, I'd pay them," Doherty said of city workers.
One of the federal lawsuits — filed Tuesday by 10 injured police officers and firefighters — alleges Doherty and the city violated their due-process rights when he cut their disability pay. The second lawsuit, also filed Tuesday in federal court, alleges that Doherty and the city violated labor law by failing to pay overtime to police officers, firefighters and public-works employees.
The unions separately asked a Lackawanna County judge to hold Doherty in contempt of his order that the city pay full wages to its work force.
John Judge, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 60, said the average firefighter earns about $56,000 a year, and their paychecks are now "poverty-level."
"I have guys who qualify for food stamps now," he said. "I have guys who don't know how they are going to pay their mortgage. There are kids working at ice cream stands earning more than their fathers, which is ridiculous."
Judge said, however, that members' morale hadn't been too adversely affected, especially given earlier conflicts with the mayor over the previous decade.
"The guys are still out there, they're hanging in there," he said. "It's frustrating for them and scary. They have a lot of questions and we aren't getting many answers."
Sam Vitris, president of the public-works union, said the steep wage cut has come as a blow to employees struggling to pay mortgages, car loans, credit cards and other bills. He said some of his members have canceled their vacations.
"It's a 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."
Vitris said streets, sanitation and other public-works employees — who make around $20 an hour — remain on the job.
"Morale is low. There are a lot of questions. But the guys are showing up for work and they are doing their thing and I couldn't be prouder of them," he said.