Despite a relative win for recycling workers, living wage advocates pledge to keep on fighting
Boston’s plan to achieve “zero waste” by 2050 has drawn plenty of attention for its flashy prospects. What’s been largely overlooked, however, is a policy shift decades in the making that will mean more money for low-wage recycling workers.
For the first time in its 22-year history, Boston’s living wage ordinance will be applied to the city’s new recycling contract starting in July. This means all workers will earn at least $15.31 per hour for time spent working on the contract, with annual escalations. This is seen as a half-measure by critics who wanted the rate applied full-time, but the incremental change is still notable.
Casella Waste Systems, the publicly traded regional agglomerate that sorts residential recyclables in Charlestown, has never agreed to do this before.
“We see this as a step toward the goal,” Boston Chief of Streets Chris Osgood said. “We’re going to encourage other folks who use that facility to follow Boston’s lead and find a path to help more Casella employees make a living wage.”
A 2018 special investigation by DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism highlighted how Casella helped craft the argument behind its exemption from living wage ordinances in Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston throughout the early 2000s. Once controversial, this gradually became official city policy.
As recently as December 2018, Boston officials were still arguing they didn’t need to specify living wage language in the city’s draft “zero waste” plan and shied away from promising it would be addressed in this next contract.
Following pressure from advocates in the Zero Waste Boston coalition, and a seeming change of heart by the administration of Mayor Marty Walsh, the plan ended up including a mention. Under the recommendation to “Support Green Jobs,” the city pledged to:
Support measures to improve the safety, health, and jobs of workers in solid-waste jobs, such as by ensuring that vendors meet their obligations under Boston’s Living Wage Ordinance and report to the City on OSHA violations and actions taken to address them.
This language only made the final cut after Boston and Casella reached a deal for their next multiyear recycling contract earlier this month. As reported by DigBoston, Casella submitted two different bids—one for an estimated $385,000 more per year to comply with the ordinance, and another requesting another exemption to keep the status quo. The chosen option comes with a caveat: Workers will only be paid the living wage rate 20% of the time.
“We made a calculation based on Boston’s material processed at the facility and what it would take to increase wages to Boston’s living wage level for that portion of material,” Casella Vice President Joe Fusco wrote via email. “To be clear, employees will receive Boston’s living wage for the portion of their wage that includes processing Boston’s material.”
For some pushing to see the issue rectified, this comes as a disappointment.
“Recycling workers should never have been exempted from the city’s wage standards,” Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards said. “While I appreciate the hard work the administration has made to address this issue while sustaining city services, being paid a living wage 20% of the time is not a living wage.”
Edwards continued, “Given the crises in the waste and recycling industries and day-to-day financial struggles of many of the Commonwealth’s residents, it’s clear there is an urgent need to work collaboratively with municipalities in the region to address shared challenges.”
The councilor pledged to stay on this issue as the “zero waste” plan gets implemented, and Edwards won’t be alone.
“Unfortunately, Casella is only willing to meet [Boston] part of the way,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. “While workers will see an increase in their paychecks starting July 1, many will still not be paid living wage. We will keep advocating until our shared vision is realized.”
This partial pay increase will be a welcome change for workers performing the fast-paced, injury-prone task of sifting through everything area residents toss in their blue bins. Turnover is often high and serious incidents can occur at even the safest facilities.
At the time of its February bid, Casella estimated 124 of the facility’s 163 employees were making less than $14.82 (Boston’s living wage rate until July). An estimated 155 employees were expected to spend time on this contract.
It’s possible there could also be more pay hikes to come. Casella handles material from dozens of cities and towns and hasn’t ruled out similar arrangements in future negotiations.
“We recognize, as do municipalities, that there are costs associated with public policy goals, and we are always willing to structure our service proposals to allow them to achieve those goals,” Fusco said.
Cambridge’s contract is up next year. The city has been watching this outcome closely, though a municipal official told DigBoston in April it wouldn’t be influenced by Boston’s decision. The city’s living wage rate went up to $16.15 this year and its residential recyclables account for less than 5% of Casella’s annual tonnage. Cambridge’s communications director did not respond to requests for comment.
Somerville’s material accounts for an even smaller share. The City Council there recently voted to increase the city’s living wage rate to $15 (the change went in place July 1). The city’s recycling contract is up in 2021, and Mayor Joe Curtatone’s administration has committed to addressing the issue.
“It’s encouraging to hear about Boston’s decision, and their approach is certainly one model for supporting living wage that we will look at when we rebid our recycling contract,” spokesperson Denise Taylor said. “It’s helpful that the biggest player in the region has created an approach that we can potentially use, and we’re interested to see how it works and how it’s enforced. … Just as we recently raised our living wage ordinance to $15 per hour for all people working for or with the city, we are committed to getting recycling workers as well to living wage—and we intend to do so through the most impactful option.”
Somerville City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen told DigBoston he’s also open to multiple solutions and plans to move even sooner.
“I strongly support paying a living wage to all of the workers in Somerville’s recycling supply chain, and I hope all of our neighboring communities will do the same. It may cost more, but we should never seek to save money by underpaying the people who do the work,” Ewen-Campen said. “I’ll be sponsoring a resolution for our July 11 City Council meeting in support of renegotiating our recycling contract as soon as possible to ensure it is subject to our living wage ordinance.”
Others that do business with Casella also have living wage policies, but haven’t faced the same question yet. Brookline, for example, told DigBoston in 2018 it granted a living wage exemption for a textile recycling contract. The town’s public works department did not respond to requests for comment about its current curbside recycling contract.
Boston’s “zero waste” path will also set it up for similar discussions moving forward that may put this new ethos to the test again. The city now plans to pursue new contracts for recycling residential textiles and food waste, both of which could potentially be covered by this newfound interest in enforcing its living wage ordinance.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. You can read Cole’s initial story and first follow-up on the living wage and recycling contracts at binjonline.org, and you can support reporting like this at givetobinj.org.
Cole is the lead editor of Waste Dive and has reported on recycling in Boston for BINJ for the past several years. Cole earned a BFA from Emerson College and a MA from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He currently lives with his family in Somerville, Massachusetts.