BOSTON - Thousands of state employees are feeling the pinch of the high cost of living while they wait for lawmakers to act on dozens of ratified collective bargaining agreements that have remained stalled out in the Legislature for months.
Some state workers have been waiting since the spring for agreed-upon raises to hit their paychecks, like the 8,000 or so human service workers and educators covered by SEIU Local 509, which staged a rally Thursday outside the State House.
"Our state workers are upset. They were owed this five months ago, and they're upset the raises haven't gone through yet. They are hurting. You know, things are getting a lot more expensive," Local 509 President Dave Foley told the News Service, adding that the goal of the rally was "to make sure that every legislator feels the same urgency that our workers feel every day, being asked to do more with less."
The Local 509 bargaining units -- featuring employees at the Department of Children and Families, Department of Transitional Assistance, Department of Developmental Services, Department of Mental Health, and other agencies -- reached a contract deal in April that was ratified in May, for raises that would have been retroactive to January.
The pending list of bargaining agreements before the Legislature has risen to 82, and while some are contracts that would take effect in the future, like the State Police Association of Massachusetts, others are historical, like an agreement for faculty and professional staff at the state's 15 community college campuses that deals with raises due back to 2021.
The 82 contracts are laid out in Gov. Maura Healey's $2.15 billion budget bill (H 4090) to close the books on fiscal 2023, which ended almost four months ago. The list also includes five agreements with MassDOT employees, 23 with University of Massachusetts personnel, nine with Registry of Deeds workers, 35 with employees of county sheriff's departments, and an agreement with National Association of Government Employees units that cover tens of thousands of employees across the executive branch.
SEIU member Brenda Grant works as a Department of Mental Health clinical social worker on a locked psychiatric unit at Tewksbury State Hospital. Her caseload's around double what it should be, her unit just lost a new social worker, and she said the raise they're waiting for isn't even keeping up with the cost of living.
"I'm experiencing it personally. Everything's going up. I go to the grocery store, get two bags of food, it's $80. But my pay has not necessarily gone up. So it's more of a struggle financially on all of us, who are already doing such a hard job serving the most marginalized people in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts," Grant said. "And we work so hard, in such difficult conditions. And then to not be compensated for it is, you know, sometimes like a slap in the face."
State workers covered by Local 509 saw a 2.5% hike at the start of 2022. So that union's members were excited for this year's 4% raise retroactive to Jan. 1, and another 4% pay hike that was set to take effect July 1. All it required was legislative authorization.
The House Ways and Means Committee folded that bargaining agreement, along with 32 others, into a supplemental budget bill in mid-July. The list was up to 59 different collective bargaining agreements waiting for authorization by the time the Senate had redrafted the bill. But after dithering between the House and Senate over a bottom line to cover the contracts, budgetwriters struck that whole section of the bill before it was enacted and sent to Gov. Maura Healey's desk on July 31.
Healey asked lawmakers last month, in her closeout budget, to act on a list that had now climbed to 82 bargaining agreements. But that bill features other major loose ends, like additional funding for the state's overwhelmed emergency shelter system, where legislators haven't yet settled on a figure.
House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, who currently has custody of that bill, said the branches are "relatively in uniform agreement" on the contract component of the closeout budget, "but it's part of a bigger discussion."
"We're still working through that. It's part of a number of different other things that are in there, it's not just those pieces," Michlewitz said Wednesday. The Boston Democrat said he's "hopeful" the bill moves soon.
A spokesman for Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said the bargaining agreements are a "top priority in the ongoing conversations."
"We are confident we will have a closeout supplemental budget in the near future," spokesman Sean Fitzgerald said.
Healey's supplemental budget appropriates $247 million for a reserve to pay for new collective bargaining agreements, and that the reserve was accounted for in the annual budget she signed in July. The House this week used the governor's supplemental budget as a vehicle to advance firearms law changes, a topic that House Democrats have devoted considerable time to in recent months.
Claudine Barnes, president of the Mass. Community College Council (MCCC), said it's "frustrating" that this procedural step for her contract has been so meandering, given that "nobody has any issue with our contract."
"They're all fine with the contract, it's just stuck in this wonky supplemental budget process," Barnes said, adding that Healey originally filed a standalone bill for MCCC's agreement back in May. "And so we're falling prey to whatever other politics are going on, on the hill. And so we're just waiting. And waiting."
The MCCC represents faculty and professional staff across the 15 community college campuses in Massachusetts, and they've already seen their latest contract expire before the Legislature could get around to authorizing retroactive raises that would reach back to 2021.
That agreement would affect close to 3,000 union members who have not seen a pay raise since 2020, according to Barnes, who teaches U.S. history and political science at Cape Cod Community College.
"We're having a retention problem, we have people not taking jobs because we don't have adequate salaries given the cost of living in Massachusetts. And this just adds insult to injury that we're caught up in this whole funding cycle," Barnes said.
Foley, the president of SEIU Local 509, said his members are also feeling the effects of poor recruitment and retention, like Department of Children and Families social workers who are seeing caseloads north of 20 when they should be held down at 15.
"If you talk to a DCF worker, they'll be able to rattle off [the top of] their head how many vacancies are in their office. There are hundreds and hundreds of vacancies through the state in critical social work positions - that can't be filled," Foley said. "They're not getting applications. And the way I see it, we negotiated with the administration to make these jobs 8% more competitive. And until this contract is authorized by the Legislature, they cannot post those positions at that new, more competitive rate."
Local 509 has been back at the bargaining table working on its next contract since early September, even though the raises from the last contract haven't yet shown up in employee direct deposits. And the MCCC's next contract, retroactive to July, will be negotiated in talks set to start Oct. 30.