PHOTO BY DEREK KOUYOUMJIAN
Will Boston set a new regional precedent and finally pay recycling workers a living wage?
For the first time in the city’s history, Boston’s living wage ordinance might finally get applied to low-paid workers sorting the city’s recycling—but only sometimes.
Boston is currently negotiating a new five-year contract with Casella Waste Systems, a publicly traded regional agglomerate that runs a major facility in Charlestown. The agreement could cost $6.16 million per year, a steep jump from past prices that has given officials a case of sticker shock, especially since Casella was the only company that submitted a bid. Those high numbers have in some ways overshadowed the wage question for those close to the negotiations; nevertheless, Boston has a fresh chance to address one of the region’s least-known and most vexing labor loopholes for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Casella has maintained it should be exempt from the landmark living wage law, which in Boston calls for any employees working on municipal contracts of a certain size to be paid at least $14.82 per hour (rising to $15.31 later this year). Cambridge, Somerville, and others have their own living wage rates, but have also never applied them to Casella. As uncovered in a 2018 special investigation by DigBoston and the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, the company even helped craft the legal argument that some Massachusetts cities have used to give it a pass. Meanwhile, workers handling everything people toss in their recycling bins—a repetitive, high-risk job—are usually making minimum wage or just above.
With the administration of Mayor Marty Walsh set to unveil a new “zero waste” plan soon, labor and environmental advocates in the Zero Waste Boston (ZWB) coalition have grown increasingly adamant this issue be addressed as part of the city’s lofty equity goals.
Despite the topic coming up repeatedly at Zero Waste Advisory Committee meetings, officials have refused to show their hand. When pressed by coalition members during a December meeting, Chief of Streets Chris Osgood said the city had “a great understanding and commitment to ensuring that we have good labor practices in all of the work that we do,” and noted that Walsh “values” the spirit of the living wage ordinance.
The mayor-appointed Living Wage Advisory Committee suggested the city stop its pattern of exempting the recycling contract, along with other recommendations, back in the summer of 2018. That memo is still under review and budgetary analysis as of publication, but the inclusion of one simple sentence in a set of February bid documents marked a seemingly crucial shift: “This contract requires that all vendors comply with Boston’s Living Wage Ordinance.”
Casella’s opposition and successful exemptions to these living wage laws was once the source of ongoing press coverage, mayoral hand-wringing, and supportive protests from organized labor during the early 2000s. Since then, the issue has languished almost completely outside of public view.
Now, after more than a decade of the status quo, Casella has finally changed course. On Feb. 21, when bids were opened at Boston City Hall, it was revealed the company put in two options—one with the living wage, one without. The difference was $10 per ton of recycling (about $385,000 extra per year) in expense for the city.
Given that Casella’s price was already so much higher than usual due to major changes in global scrap commodity markets, and negotiations remain ongoing, neither the company nor the city would comment for this story.
This left many unanswered questions about whether either had actually changed their stance on if the contract qualified under the living wage ordinance. It was also unknown what Casella’s new pay scale would mean for workers. But after a protracted public records process, DigBoston obtained the (mostly unredacted) bid documents. Among the highlights:
- Based on the fact that Boston’s city-managed recycling comprises about 20% of the volume showing up at the Charlestown material recovery facility (MRF), “Casella proposes to pay all employees at the MRF the City of Boston Living Wage for 20% of the time worked …”
- Of the 163 employees working at the facility, Casella reported 124 were making between the state minimum of $12 and $14.82. Out of that low-paid bunch there were 149 minorities, 69 temporary employees, 56 Boston residents, and 54 women.
- Despite including the higher-priced option to comply, Casella still included a separate affidavit requesting an exemption from the ordinance with its traditional rationale: “Casella Recycling, LLC, contends that the contract for the receipt of recyclables from the City of Boston is a purchase of goods contract … As such, the relationship between Casella as the receiver of goods, and the City of Boston as the provider of goods, exempts the contract …”
Based on this parallel approach, Casella’s seeming change of heart strikes some as hollow.
“[L]et’s be clear: this is not a spontaneous act of generosity,” said Richard Juang, an attorney with ZWB member Alternatives for Community & Environment, in a statement. “Application of the living wage to the City’s recycling contract is a legal requirement. Recycling is a service and the recycling contract for the City qualifies as a contract for services subject to the living wage ordinance. Casella would not be eligible for the contract if it were not providing recycling as a service. Casella is disingenuous when it ignores that simple fact. And the living wage should be applied to all the workers paid by public dollars under the City contract, not just a subset, as Casella seems inclined to do.”
It’s possible that Boston could just accept Casella’s higher bid, let the workers get paid more during part of the week, and never address the underlying question. But it won’t be the last time Casella has to face the living wage question, and setting a half-measure precedent could further complicate things for other cities.
Cambridge’s recycling contract with Casella is up next year. Somerville’s is up the year after that. Both are also expecting much higher costs overall, while dealing with growing pressure from local officials to sort out the wage issue. Asked how Cambridge might respond if Boston’s final contract did include a living wage rate for Casella workers, the city declined to take a stance.
“It is unlikely that Boston’s decisions will influence the City of Cambridge’s decisions regarding how best to comply with applicable statutes,” wrote spokesperson Lee Gianetti.
Somerville leaders, including Mayor Joe Curtatone and multiple city councilors, have been more vocal about their interest in fixing this. Asked for its take, the city doubled down while also looking to Boston for the first move.
“Somerville is still intent on pursuing a living wage for recycling workers when we rebid that contract, and we have reached out to neighboring municipalities to discuss this and the need for the region to join together in this effort,” spokesperson Denise Taylor wrote. “We need other cities and towns to cover their share of that increase by also requiring a living wage. So it’s great news that Boston is considering this. If they lead the way, it would be much more feasible for Somerville and other communities to establish similar living wage requirements.”
Boston is expected to finalize its new recycling contract as early as this month.