Volunteers save cities billions, but unions cry foul

With budgets tighter than ever, cities across America are increasingly looking for more free labor. Nowhere is that trend more evident than Yakima, Wash.

“More and more every year, a large part of what we do is volunteers,” says Archie Matthews, Yakima’s director of neighborhood development services, “It saves us a ton of money.”

Matthews says begging for volunteers is not beneath him. And to his surprise, he usually gets them. Once signed up, they do a variety of tasks, including construction work for low-income housing, painting over gang graffiti and keeping senior centers from having to close their doors.

Mary Lizotte, 74, volunteers eight hours a week at a senior center, where the paid staff has been trimmed to just three employees.

“We’ve been faced with cuts in the budget and threatened to be closed down a couple of days a week,” Lizotte said. “It’s not only good for them, it’s good for us volunteers.” The center is able to stay open seven days a week with volunteers doing everything from clerical work to preparing and serving the food.

According to a Volunteering in America study, last year 63 million Americans volunteered more than eight billion hours. When you calculate average wages and benefits for city employees, local governments saved $173 billion.

In many places churches are leading the way. “We’re at a time when, as citizens we need to be giving ourselves away freely to serve our communities,” says Dave Edler, pastor at Yakima’s Foursquare Church which held a park cleanup with several hundred volunteers recently.

But not everyone is thrilled about the civic spirit. Some unions are pushing back, fearing volunteers are cutting into their territory. “They’re eroding the number of hours for our people,” says Ian Gordon of Laborer’s Union 1239 in Seattle. “It’s of great concern that they might be doing further work that we would normally do.”

Gordon’s union represent 900 city employees, nearly half of them maintenance workers in the Parks Department, which cut staff by 14 percent. He’s met with city officials over the volunteer issue and insisted on a significant roadblock. Volunteers are not allowed to drive work trucks or use power equipment of any kind. No lawnmowers, no weed whackers, no leaf blowers.

Len Gilroy of the Reason Institute says it’s about protecting their turf. “Unions see a threat to jobs and lavish benefits that they’ve secured for their employees,” says Gilroy.

Ian Gordon won’t dispute that. “I need to be concerned about our people, who have lives, families and who need to make a living wage,” says Gordon.

Some unions don’t have a problem. The Police Guild in Redlands, Calif., has welcomed a big spike in volunteer cops even after 21 paid officers were laid off. The city now has nearly four times as many volunteer officers as full-time, paid cops. Many of the volunteers do everything their paid counterparts do, from chasing down suspects to making arrests. “It’s essential for us,” says Redlands Police Chief Mark Garcia, “especially in tough financial times.”

City officials admit there is a balancing act. They want to keep city services going in the wake of cutbacks. The only way to do that is with volunteers. The trick, they say, is to tap into a growing pool of free labor without angering their organized labor.