City Council Voices Support for Howard Center Workers | Off Message

City Council Voices Support for Howard Center Workers


Karen Porter, who works for the Howard Center, addresses the city council at its meeting Monday. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Karen Porter, who works for the Howard Center, addresses the city council at its meeting Monday.
A little before 9 p.m. Monday, roughly 20 people wearing green T-shirts celebrated on the steps of Burlington City Hall. Minutes earlier, the city council had voted 6-5 to approve a resolution calling on Howard Center management to support a livable wage for their staff.

It’s highly unlikely that the resolution will change anyone’s salary — those decisions lie with the organization's leaders, not the council. Still, embroiled in a labor battle that’s dragged on for more than a year, the unionized workers were ready to rally around the minor victory.

The Howard Center provides mental health care, substance abuse treatment, counseling and other services to roughly 15,000 people each year, according to its website.

Bargaining on behalf of the center's employees, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has been in contract negotiations with management since April 2014. Seven Days wrote last year about the union's efforts to recruit members among Howard Center's ranks.

Unionized employees have also been fighting for this resolution since last December, when the council decided not to support a slightly different version.

During the public forum, one Howard Center employee said he’s moving into an RV in Burlington next month because he can’t continue pay 40 percent of his income on rent. Others emphasized that low salaries — $11 per hour for some employees — have led to high turnover, which negatively impacts often-vulnerable clients who depend on stable care.

Councilors had no qualms about urging the state to send more money to organizations such as the Howard Center. The debate dealt with one line —  that “the Burlington City Council urges the Howard Center to make livable and competitive wages for workers a priority.”

The disagreement crossed party lines. Progressive councilor Jane Knodell, Republican Kurt Wright and three Democrats voted against the resolution on the grounds that the council shouldn’t insert itself into contract negotiations. Mayor Miro Weinberger noted that he was "troubled" by it for the same reason. 

Democrat Tom Ayres countered that the council would be shirking its duty if it didn't support the resolution. "I think it's incumbent upon us as elected leaders to stand behind those who are making extraordinary contributions to our community and make sure they’re adequately compensated." 

In a less contentious move, the council unanimously approved Beth Anderson as the city's first-ever chief innovation officer.