It took decades for workers doing this dangerous job to get a living wage. But are their problems finally sorted out?
For the first time ever, Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville are boosting the pay for the workers who sort their recyclables after resolving a decades-long stalemate with a regional company.
Each city requires that workers involved with large municipal contracts earn more money, but Casella Waste Systems—a major, publicly traded company—successfully got exemptions for years. A 2018 special investigation by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism (BINJ) found Casella played a key role in supplying the rationale behind these unofficial city policies, until Boston reversed course in 2019. Cambridge later did the same in 2020; Somerville recently followed suit in August.
As a result, workers responsible for sorting through everyone’s sticky jars and cans at a large Charlestown facility could now be earning hundreds of dollars more per year. Currently, many of these full-time and temporary workers earn the state’s minimum wage of $13.50, or slightly above.
It’s all based on a proportional formula that applies each city’s living wage rate to the amount of volume it sends. Under the new system, workers involved with the contracts are now being paid Boston’s living wage rate of $15.87 for 20% of their time. Cambridge’s rate of $16.65 is applied 5% of the time, along with Somerville’s rate of $15.46 for 3% of the time.
Originally, when these living wage ordinances were first enacted, the subsequent recycling contract exemptions yielded plenty of media coverage and debate in each city. Many years later, the decisions to reverse one of the region’s lesser-known labor loopholes received next to no attention. While observers agree it’s a surprising outcome, some say more still needs to be done.
“We’ve been really working to try to ensure that those who are on the front lines of some of the most important climate work that cities do [are] paid properly,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH). “It is a great step forward, but unfortunately we’re not there 100% yet, and these workers continue to be doing some of the most dangerous work that there is.”
Working on the sorting line at any recycling facility is physically taxing, sometimes dangerous, and pays less than many other jobs. Following years of stagnation, three of the largest cities in the region have found a way to make it slightly more lucrative.
Back in February 2019, Casella estimated the majority of workers at its Charlestown facility—where recyclables are processed from private and public sector customers alike—would see more money under this policy change. At the time, they were making less than Boston’s living wage rate of $14.82.
We wanted to follow up on that claim, but the Boston Planning & Development Agency, which works with the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development on implementing the living wage ordinance, did not respond to questions about the policy’s implementation. So we obtained multiple years worth of quarterly reports sent by Casella to Boston via a public records request, which confirmed that dozens of workers are indeed seeing higher wages.
The most recent reports available, from the first quarter of 2021, show Boston’s rate being applied to around 125 workers. Most were temporary workers generally making $13.50 at the time. About one-fifth of those workers were full-time Casella employees, many earning $14.01.
The use of temporary workers is common at recycling facilities around the country, given the high turnover rate for sorting jobs. Casella Vice President Joe Fusco confirmed via email, “We made adjustments to ensure temporary workers’ pay rates increased by the same percentages.”
Casella’s quarterly reports indicate that is the case, with some people earning hundreds more per quarter depending on how much they worked. In one example, a person who had the most hours of any temporary worker—and earned the state’s minimum rate as their base wage—earned an additional $240 from just Boston’s living wage rate during the first three months of this year.
Reports identify the majority of workers affected by this change as “Hispanic,” with many living in zip codes that would make them constituents of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.
While this issue seemed intractable for decades, the compromises that led to its resolution show change was theoretically possible all along. The initial decisions to exempt recycling contracts from these living wage ordinances were complex, but they ultimately happened for two key reasons.
First, Casella and city lawyers generally agreed these contracts fell outside the living wage ordinances because they were for the sale of goods—recyclables, which can be valuable commodities—rather than the procurement of services. Second, none of the parties involved could agree on who would foot the bill or a formula to calculate it.
In the end, change happened when the cities agreed to pay more money to enact their policy goals and sidestepped the goods versus services debate.
Former Mayor Marty Walsh maintained the status quo on this issue when he took office, but the question came up again as part of the city’s zero waste planning process that concluded in 2019. As we previously reported, that led the city to enforce its living wage requirement when the current recycling contract went out for bid that year. In response, Casella said it would start paying Boston’s living wage rate if the city paid an extra $10 per ton of recyclables. This equated to roughly $385,000 more per year, in a contract that was already substantially more expensive than the prior one due to broader recycling market changes.
“This bid option makes a meaningful step towards ensuring that workers in the recycling processing industry are paid a living wage, by closing the gap between Casella’s current wages at the Charlestown facility and the living wage in proportion with the amount of recycling tonnage Boston comprises,” Chris Osgood, then chief of streets, wrote to Walsh in a 2019 letter that was included with a copy of the city’s recycling contract obtained via a records request. “While Casella did not submit an offer to commit to full living wage as required by the ordinance, this step is progress toward the workforce goals outlined in our Zero Waste plan.”
This was considered a half-measure by some, but Casella was the sole bidder and the only company with a large recycling facility in the vicinity. Boston took the deal.
Cambridge previously told BINJ it wouldn’t be influenced by Boston, but the city negotiated a similar deal in October 2020. The city declined to say what prompted this shift or how it is tracking compliance. One of the recent compliance reports that Casella sent to Boston confirmed Cambridge’s rate is now being paid to workers as well.
A Cambridge spokesperson ultimately replied via email, “The City and Casella specifically discussed and made sure that the contract would include the Living Wage. The contract includes a clause for the City to pay an additional $10/ton to process single-stream recycling to ensure Casella employees were paid the Living Wage for their work on Cambridge’s recycling.”
In Somerville, meanwhile, outgoing Mayor Joe Curtatone and other local officials had already pledged to make the change when their next contract came up. In August, they finalized plans to pay Casella an additional $8 per ton to apply the city’s living wage rate. Somerville said Boston’s decision was an important precedent, as bidders followed its payment formula, but also noted other factors.
“What brought on this change is simple: this administration is always open to reevaluating policies whether the push for that comes from within, from the community, or from both,” Denise Taylor, Somerville’s director of communications and community engagement, wrote in a statement. “Discussion of this began with stakeholders, councilors, and reporters who shed light on the history. The administration listened, reviewed, and committed to change. What we have now is greater equity for these workers, but the work will not be done until other communities also make similar changes in their recycling contracts.”
Taylor said Somerville also applied living wage requirements to its textile recycling contract for the first time this year.
The fight continues
When this back-and-forth over recycling contracts began, living wage policies generated plenty of political conflict. Boston’s initial 1997 ordinance drew criticism from the governor about potential harm to the economy, elicited pushback from business groups, and became an election issue for certain unions. The first round of recycling contract exemptions in the early 2000s sparked months of intermittent debate and protest.
Today, both regionally and nationally, municipal living wage ordinances are viewed as more of an arcane concept. Unlike when they first started gaining traction in the 1990s, more than half of all states now have minimum wages that are higher than the federal minimum (currently $7.25). Massachusetts now has the second-highest state minimum wage in the country. In some cases, higher citywide minimum wages have also been enacted in various states.
These days, the discussion around applying higher rates only to certain municipal contracts is far less prominent.
“The minimum wage concept has always been more preferable than the living wage,” said Stephanie Luce, author of the 2004 book Fighting for a Living Wage. Luce gave Boston credit for being unlike many cities that just passed these ordinances and then put limited resources toward enforcing them. The fact that Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville are still talking about their living wage policies, and finally reached a compromise with Casella, is even more notable in her view.
“I think it’s not at all common. It’s so complicated, I don’t think even most cities would have been willing to deal with it, or most contractors,” said Luce, who is also a professor of labor studies and sociology at the City University of New York, of the final agreements. “This is an exceptional case.”
As Luce’s research shows, the most successful living wage campaigns tend to involve some element of outside community pressure and advocacy. While there was substantial local energy around passing these policies, and resisting the recycling exemptions, the cities had minimal leverage. Despite some discussion, a city-owned alternative facility never got built and regional competition is limited in municipal recycling bids.
Following the arc of this issue in Somerville, however, may serve as a case study for how that outside pressure can eventually yield results.
Support for a living wage ordinance in Somerville was advanced by local activists at various community potlucks and events such as a Labor Day picnic rally in Prospect Hill Park during the late 1990s. It took nearly two years of debate for the then-Board of Aldermen to pass the policy, making it a topic in the 1998 Congressional race and 1999 municipal elections. When the law was finally signed in the summer of 1999, Somerville was the smallest city in the country with such a policy. Soon after, it also became the first local city to grant an exemption for its recycling contract.
While certain local officials brought the issue up off and on over the years, it didn’t see real movement until the city had more resources, along with a newer progressive wave of residents and electeds interested in making changes by reexamining minutiae of local government.
“There is a truly enormous amount of real estate capital pouring into Somerville and what I believe this city wants to do with that is further equity,” said City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen, a supporter of ending the recycling exemption. “That means, big picture, a lot of affordable housing, a lot of improved, safe public transit, but it also means making sure that we are paying workers correctly.”
Somerville also raised its living wage rate to $15 in 2019, beyond the usual small annual increase, to keep up with higher costs.
As Massachusetts moves toward a $15 minimum wage by 2024, with local living wage rates expected to keep rising incrementally, questions around bridging the gap may come up in recycling contract negotiations yet again. Cambridge’s contract is set to expire in 2023, with the contracts in Boston and Somerville up in 2024.
Labor advocates had long hoped to see each city’s living wage applied more widely among Casella employees, not just proportionally, though a clear plan never came together on how that would work. For MassCOSH, the priority going forward is to get additional details about how Casella accounts for the escalating state rate alongside the higher costs it is charging cities to implement their local rates.
“As minimum wages go up we want to make sure that the increased cost to the cities is only for the difference between the minimum wage and living wage,” said Sugerman-Brozan, the MassCOSH executive director.
Boston Planning & Development Agency did not respond to questions about how Boston views such questions in regards to its living wage ordinance or whether Casella’s approach is common among other contracts. And Casella said the rising state minimum wage wasn’t a factor in calculating the additional costs it is charging cities.
Beyond the three cities’ contracts, some organizers have wondered if similar policies can be applied to time spent on the other recyclables entering Casella’s doors. Much of that comes from commercial accounts like businesses and large residential buildings not covered by city contracts. And of course there are also the other municipalities that work with Casella; some of those cities and towns have their own living wage ordinances, but it’s unclear if they have the funds or will to follow Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.
“We have no new information as to what our other customers’ or future customers’ intentions are with regards to living wage,” said Fusco, the Casella VP.
If other cities do address the issue, the long-awaited outcomes around Greater Boston may offer a blueprint.
“A lot of communities felt like their leverage, without Boston being involved, was limited,” Somerville Councilor Ewen-Campen said. “Like a lot of the challenges we face, it’s in fact regional, and all of the municipalities really depend on one another to get stuff done.”
This article was written in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org. Donations will be matched by a national funder through November and December.
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.