Senate staff get raises and pay scale changes – but no union

Massachusetts Senate staff seeking to unionize have gotten a big portion of what they want – minus the union.

Senate President Karen Spilka on Wednesday announced a new compensation system for Senate staff, which standardizes job classifications and aligns them with pay grades and salary ranges that are based on work experience, training, and education. The change provides a minimum 10 percent pay increase for all current Senate staff and sets a new pay floor of $50,138, compared to the current $45,580.

Spilka said the plan is the culmination of work she has done since becoming president “to modernize and standardize our HR procedures while creating a more equitable and inclusive workplace where staff can serve the people of the Commonwealth while building a career.” She called it “an important step towards the Senate attracting a more diverse workforce and creating a foundation for future work on staff development and compensation.

The plan is the direct result of a study conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures, commissioned by Spilka’s office and released to Senate leadership in November 2021. That report found the Senate lacked consistent job titles, and salaries are set through the president’s office in a way that lacks transparency.

The new plan builds on other HR improvements Spilka made since taking office in 2018, creating two new minimum salaries, improving paid leave policies, and passing sexual harassment policies.

Yet staffers who announced in early April that they want to unionize say the new pay plan does not alleviate the need for a union. That effort is in limbo because legislative employees do not have a legal right to unionize, and Spilka has said there are potential legal issues with recognizing a union.

The Massachusetts State House Employees Union, the official group pushing for the union, wrote in a statement posted on Twitter, “When we organize we win. Today the MA Senate finally announced the rollout of livable wages for all Senate staff. However, the fight for recognition and a seat at the table in our workplace continues.” The statement said there are other outstanding issues, like better protections against sexual harassment, measures to support diverse staff, annual cost of living increases, standardized onboarding for new staff, an independent human resources department, and collective bargaining.

The plan was presented to employees via a webinar conducted by Senators Michael Rush and Brendan Crighton, who lead the Senate Committee on Personnel and Administration. Several staffers said the fact that there was no way for staff to ask questions or discuss it is symbolic of the problems they face when they are not at the decision-making table.

“It took place on a webinar, and like most webinars attendees aren’t seen or heard, which feels very emblematic of how many staffers, myself included, feel right now,” said one staff member, who spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears job repercussions. The staffer said she is happy about the new pay system, which she said illustrates the power of staff organization, but staffers still want a seat at the table to push for other changes.

A second staffer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, similarly called it a “good step forward” and a demonstration that activism can deliver results. But she said when dealing with issues like staff salaries, benefits, and training, “it’s important to have an ongoing means to provide feedback in a meaningful way and not just begging for scraps.”

Mark Martinez, a former staffer and one of the founders of Beacon BLOC, an organization of legislative staffers of color advocating for better working conditions, believes the pay change is “100 percent in response to the unionization efforts.” But he worried that legislative leaders see it as a way to head off unionization. “I think it’s to convince people ‘oh you don’t need a union, we’ll just pay you after you yell at us for a few years to do it,’” Martinez said.

Martinez said there are other outstanding issues, and he too expressed frustration that management arrived at the pay scale without staff input. “The Senate president has continued to do these things and implement these changes without any input from the staff, then we’re left with a bunch of questions. Where does this come from, what does this mean, what happens after this? Questions that wouldn’t be arising if staff were at the table when decisions were being made,” Martinez said.

A Senate spokesperson said staff were surveyed about their job content and about their experience and education, and staff and members were asked to provide input about the results of the independent compensation report.

This story has been updated with a response from the Senate spokesperson. 

SHIRA SCHOENBERG

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Chang-Diaz discontinues campaign: The Democratic candidate for governor said she is discontinuing her campaign but keeping her name on the ballot while campaigning for other candidates who share her progressive ideals. Read more.

Childcare politics: Grants that sustained the state’s childcare industry through the pandemic are scheduled to expire this month, and Gov. Charlie Baker, who supports extending the funding for another year, can’t seem to get on the same page with legislative leaders, who have different ideas. Read more.

Gas tax holiday: Gov. Charlie Baker said he supported President Biden’s call for suspension of the gas tax at the federal and state level, but key Democrats on Beacon Hill did not. House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka said they worried oil companies would not pass along the tax cut to drivers. Read more.

Millionaire tax summary approved: The Supreme Judicial Court let stand the summary of the millionaire tax constitutional amendment that was approved by Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, deciding not to get into the issue of whether the money raised will actually go to education and transportation. The unanimous decision said the summary, which will appear on the November ballot, “fairly informs” voters on how it will work and isn’t required to get into legal analysis or interpretation. Read more.

Mail-in voting now permanent: Bucking the stance of many members of his own party, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a bill making vote by mail permanent. Read more.

Strong support for low-income fare: A new poll finds support gaining for a discount for low-income riders on the MBTA and regional transit agencies, with 56 percent of the state’s residents strongly supportive and 27 percent somewhat supportive. Read more.

OPINION

The case for a low-income fare: Chelsea City Manager Tom Ambrosino and Maria Belen Power of GreenRoots urge the Legislature to provide funding to the MBTA and regional transportation agencies for a discount for low-income riders. Read more.

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Protesters disrupt Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s coffee hour at Ronan Park in Dorchester and police arrest one man after a violent altercation. (Dorchester Reporter)

Neighbors of a church in Centerville on the Cape say a cell phone transmitter inside the steeple is making them sick. (Cape Cod Times)

ELECTIONS

A UMass Lowell poll finds that most residents have never heard of the Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor, auditor, or attorney general. It also finds that Democrat Maura Healey continues to lead the race for governor. (MassLive)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A new Harvard University report says would-be homeowners in Boston need to be making $181,000 a year to afford a home purchase. (Boston Globe)

Worcester County’s homeless population jumped 45 percent over the last year, largely because of a lack of affordable housing. (MassLive)

EDUCATION

Negotiations between the state and Boston on oversight of the city’s schools appear to have hit a snag over three issues – the overall structure of the agreement, timelines for some steps, and the hiring of an independent data auditor. In one letter from Boston Mayor Michelle Wu that was obtained via a public records request, the mayor said the two sides appeared to be moving farther apart. (Boston Globe)

TRANSPORTATION

The MBTA said a “battery failure” on one out-of-service new Orange Line vehicle prompted the shutdown of all new Orange and Red Line cars, but transportation safety experts say the failure was most likely a battery explosion. (Boston Globe)

Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi asks why no one on Beacon Hill is finding out what’s taking so long for a plant in Springfield to turn out new Red and Orange Line cars for the MBTA and why those cars keep getting pulled off subway lines. 

A Berkshire Eagle editorial says a temporary resolution to a long-running bridge closure should be a wakeup call for the entire state on how it supports infrastructure projects.

New Bedford starts the planning for development around its two new commuter rail stations providing links to Boston. (Standard-Times)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

A federal jury awarded $650,000 to a construction worker who was reported to immigration authorities after he suffered an injury at work. (Boston Globe)

A 24-year-old woman gets probation and loses her license for 15 years after she pleads guilty to motor vehicle homicide in the death of a Northampton musician. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

A new US Supreme Court ruling could make it harder for people in New England to sue federal law enforcement agencies who violate their rights during warrantless searches. (USA Today)

MEDIA

Semafor prepares to launch as a global digital news organization with $25 million in funding from wealth investors. (New York Times)