Democratic leaders still negotiating a wide-ranging spending bill faced pressure to act on multiple fronts Monday, with labor leaders adding to the calls for a compromise while the state’s influx of migrants literally spilled further into state government’s own front door.
Hundreds of state employees and labor officials flooded the State House to demand the Legislature pass the hundreds of millions of dollars for state worker raises that remain tied up in talks over the wider $2.8 billion package.
The show of force trained criticism on Democrats from the very labor groups they often stand shoulder to shoulder with come election time. Dozens of state workers packed brief sessions in the state Senate and the House; in the latter, court officers threatened to clear the workers from the public gallery if they disrupted proceedings.
Both chambers gaveled out without an agreement on the spending package, with plans to return Wednesday.
“Thanks for nothing!” someone shouted after the House finished the lightly attended informal session after about 20 minutes.
Outside the State House, workers carried signs reading “Where are you legislators?” and repeatedly chanted “Do your job!” as they bemoaned lawmakers’ decision to wrap up their final formal session of 2023 early Thursday morning without reaching a deal on the wide-ranging bill.
Lawmakers tucked nearly $400 million into the spending package to fund raises and other changes included in contracts covering roughly 60,000 state employees, according to labor leaders. But while Democratic leaders largely agree over funding for the collective bargaining agreements, they were at odds over a separate proposal to pour $250 million into the state’s strained emergency shelter system, among other things.
Hours after the worker rally, advocates for homeless and migrant families held a candlelight vigil outside the State House to echo calls to create more overflow sites for families denied a place in the emergency shelter program. With temperatures dropping, the state on Monday began converting second-floor conference rooms in the state transportation building in Boston into a temporary, overnight shelter.
It’s unclear when, or in what form, a legislative compromise may emerge that addresses both pots of proposed funding.
“Do you know what the atmosphere was like [that night]?” David Foley, president of SEIU Local 509, asked a crowd of workers rallying outside the State House on Monday afternoon. Foley was among the labor officials in the building when talks collapsed early Thursday after a nearly 14-hour session. “There were smiles, there were laughs. They walked out happy. Does that piss you off?!”
“Yes!” the crowd shouted back.
“We did our part,” said Foley, whose union ratified a new contract in May for workers at the Department of Children and Families and 14 other agencies. “That night we left, some people came up and apologized. I don’t want their [apologies]. I want them to do [their] job.”
Labor officials warn the delay is robbing some workers of thousands of dollars in raises included in the new collective bargaining agreements. Employees said the rising costs of groceries and rent are stretching them thin, forcing some to take on second jobs, move back in with their parents, or weather what they consider an unnecessarily tight holiday season.
“It is unfair and immoral for the Commonwealth to continue to take advantage of its workforce‚” said Ethel Everett, who has worked for DCF for 33 years and traveled to Monday’s rally from Springfield. She said her contract affords her and others an 8 percent raise she has yet to receive. “Stop playing politics with our lives and with our families.”
Members of the House Republican caucus, all of whom voted against the overall spending bill, on Monday sent a letter to negotiators urging them to release the funds for the collective bargaining agreements while they reconcile the other differences in the spending bill.
“These CBAs were negotiated in good faith, and it is imperative that the state fulfill its obligation to fund these contracts,” the Republicans wrote.
Funding for the state contracts was among the items overshadowed by legislators’ disagreement over how to buttress an emergency shelter program overwhelmed by a surge of homeless and migrant families.
The system last week hit a state-imposed limit of 7,500 families set by Governor Maura Healey in October. With the cap breached, homeless families who were once guaranteed shelter under a decades-old law are now being funneled to a newly created wait-list. State officials said there were 92 families on the wait-list as of Friday.
House leaders sought to require Healey to use $50 million of the proposed funding to create an overflow shelter for families with no other place to go. Its version also sought to require that overflow sites open within 30 days; should the state fail to do so, the 7,500-family limit would be “revoked” until the sites are operating.
The Senate omitted that requirement, and the chamber’s lead negotiator said last week he supports giving Healey more flexibility in where to direct the money.
The demands on the state are only growing. Dozens of families were reportedly told to leave Logan International Airport last week as they sought a warm place to sleep. And the decision to begin housing some families temporarily in the state transportation building underlined how dire the need has become, advocates say.
Andrea Park of the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute told about 60 people gathered for Monday evening’s vigil that advocacy groups have been inundated daily with emails from service providers, asking if someone has space to put a homeless family up for the night.
Park and other advocates back the House’s approach to require the state to set up more overflow sites for wait-listed families. She said the vigil calling for legislative action was driven, admittedly, by “a little bit out of desperation.”
“We know that we don’t have all the answers. We don’t have all the resources. But we do need to address this crisis at hand,” Park said. “There is politics. And then there is the matter of life or death that we’re facing right now.”
Material from State House News Service was included in this report.