Jersey City may be on the hook for tens of millions of dollars that a local union says is owed to its members for work performed during the Covid-19 state of emergency declared by Governor Phil Murphy. The union’s claim comes at a bad time for city finances.
On December 13 an arbitrator met with a representative of Jersey City Local Public Employees Union 245 and an attorney from the city to try to reach a settlement. If the parties can’t reach a compromise agreement, the arbitrator will issue a ruling within 90 days from the 13th.
Santo Della Monica, president of Local 245, is adamant that his approximately 150 Department of Public Works and Department of Recreation and Youth Development employees receive the pay they bargained for.
“I could be sitting in the Poconos throwing pine cones on the fire” says the 66 year-old Della Monica. “I’m in this for the fight.” Some of his members have died awaiting pay that was rightfully theirs, he says.
The city, says Della Monica, has refused to honor the contract provision, which provides, “Employees who work during a State of Emergency covering Jersey City as declared by the Governor of New Jersey, will receive double time pay for all hours worked during the State of Emergency.”
The contract expired at the end of 2019, just prior to the onset of the pandemic. However, its provisions remain in effect until replaced by a new contract.
According Della Monica, the “best practice” would have been to begin negotiating a renewal six months before the expiration. Della Monica noted, however, that it has been a long-standing custom in Jersey City to begin negotiations after a contract’s termination date.
On March 9, 2020, Governor Murphy declared a state of emergency due to rising Covid-19 cases. While the public health state of emergency ended on June 4, 2021, Della Monica points out that the state of emergency remains in effect as it relates to other aspects of the pandemic.
With the clock still running, the unpaid amount may, according to Della Monica, total in the tens of millions of dollars.
While the city has reportedly advanced several arguments for why it shouldn’t pay, Della Monica is confident that it won’t prevail. “A court has already ruled in our favor in a similar case” he says.
Indeed, in 2021, a state appellate court ruled for the union when it sought double-time compensation for a 2018 weather-related state of emergency declared by the governor. The city ended up paying the amount demanded by the union.
A judgment in the tens of millions would come at an inopportune time for the city. Jersey City was forced to raise property taxes this year to plug a hole in the budget. In 2021, the city was able to avoid raising taxes only by using $69 million in federal aid from the American Rescue Plan. The 2022 budget included $70 million in federal Covid-19 aid. In an October op-ed, Ward E Councilman James Solomon wrote, “There is no more ARP money, which creates a $70 million budget gap for next year.”
An email to Jersey City seeking comment was not returned.