AN UPSTAIRS/DOWNSTAIRS DISPARITY: City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in declaring his support for Council staffers who are considering forming a union, emphasized steps he has taken to upgrade salaries for members of central staff, but there have been wide salary gaps reported among staffers who work directly for individual Council Members, who have discretion to set pay and other personnel-related  spending.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson Nov. 14 declared he supports the effort by Council staffers to organize a union, a move first reported in this newspaper Nov. 8, when District Council 37 confirmed it was in the midst of trying to sign them up.

“I support unionization, so if staff here at the City Council wants to take that step, I wholeheartedly support them and I want to make it as easy as possible for them to do that,” Mr. Johnson said at his regularly scheduled press conference preceding the Council’s stated meeting.

‘They Should Have a Voice’

He continued, “I totally support their right to organize, and it’s really important that they feel like collectively they will have a voice to be able to weigh in on a myriad of employment issues whether it’s wages, whether it is workplace practices.”

Council staffers’ concerns about pay disparity and issues like workplace harassment have been simmering for a few years. But it was the latest substantiated charges against Council Member Andy King for mistreating his staff that caused the internal controversy to bubble over.

On Oct. 28, the Council voted to suspend Mr. King for 30 days and had his office placed under the scrutiny of an outside monitor. The sanctions, which came with a $15,000 fine, were levied after the Committee on Standards and Ethics substantiated allegations that he obstructed an internal investigation, retaliated against staff members who cooperated with that probe, regularly violated the city’s conflict-of-interest rules and misdirected public funds for his own benefit.

Mr. King had previously been sanctioned by the Council in 2017 for sexually harassing a staffer.

Staffers Wanted King Gone

After Council members opted not to expel him, 116 current and past staffers in an open letter criticized them for not taking what they believed was a necessary step.

The Council employs almost 800 people, with 366 assigned to central staff duties with the Legislative Division, the Land Use Division, the Finance Staff and the Office of the General Counsel.

The remaining 409 employees serve at the pleasure of the 52 Council Members, who are each given base budgets of $521,000 to use at their discretion for personnel, office space and other expenses.

Under the current arrangement, all Council staffers are outside the civil-service system and considered “at will” employees who can be terminated at any time.

And unlike with civil-service titles, the pay for jobs such as Legislative Assistant or Community Liaison can vary by tens of thousands of dollars and is set by individual Council Members.

Some Huge Pay Gaps

As one former longtime staffer told this newspaper, the complete discretion afforded Council Members on how they pay their staffs has produced some stunning disparities in pay.

“You can have fewer higher-paid people, and there is no minimum salary, so you can have someone making $125,000 in the same office where somebody is making $25,000.”

In his press conference, Mr. Johnson said he took pride that during his tenure he set a $52,000 minimum salary floor for all of the central Council staffers. “I think that is something that never previously existed under previous Councils,” he said.

“And even though employees of the Council are not members of a union, we have been giving cost-of-living adjustments that are patterned on DC 37’s COLAs,” Mr. Johnson added.

He conceded that the issue of how to reconcile central Council policy-making with the autonomy that Council Members have had over their staffers was complicated.

“So, historically, long predating my time as Speaker…there has been a system that’s been set up whereby the Speaker oversees the central staff...but the members have autonomy on hiring and autonomy on what they pay their staff,” he said.

Other Issues to Resolve

He continued, “But there is a little bit of a mix here in some ways because the employment policies of the City Council, whether it be our sexual harassment policies, or anti-discrimination policies, our paternity and maternity policies, our vacation policies, those are all central and apply to everyone, both central staff and members’ staff.”

The Speaker said he was open to a minimum salary for all Council Members’ staff.

Politico reported that in February 2018 100 staffers wrote Mr. Johnson about the pay disparities.

“Although the City Council has publicly supported workers’ rights, fair pay and benefits for hard-working New Yorkers, Council Member staff are often underpaid, and typically earn considerably less than staff at other city agencies who hold comparable positions and levels of responsibility,” the letter stated.

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