The D.C. Council is poised to repay more than 20,000 city employees, including council members, a combined $22 million bonus this year to make up for the four unpaid holidays they were forced to take last year to quell budget pressures.
During his monthly press briefing, D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) announced he and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) both agree a big chunk of a surprise budget surplus should go to repaying the city employees.
The repayment plan underscores how quickly the District has rebounded from the recession that resulted in hundreds of thousands of public employees losing their jobs nationwide.
The council is expected to vote on the proposal as part of $64 million in budget revisions it plans to make Tuesday. When Gray initially proposed the repayment plan two weeks ago, the council opted not to take up the matter.
Some council members, including Brown and Council member Michael A. Brown (D-At large), suggested at the time that the council might opt to repay city employees only half of their lost days last year to free up more money for human services.
But Brown said Monday he and Gray have to decided to repay city workers for all four days, underscoring city employees and the public employees union’s clout at the John A. Wilson Building.
“This is the priority that was sent down in the mayor’s revised budget,” Brown said. “Clearly, we would love to give money back to everybody, whether it was the (high) income people that got taxed…whether it was human services that were cut…I want to restore everything.
“Unfortunately, you can’t,” Brown said. “The people who work every day in this city, that have been working hard and took their furlough day, deserve to get their money back and that is what is on the table now.”
Last year, after Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi projected a $188 million budget shortfall, an estimated 25,000 employees and elected officials were not paid for four holidays — President’s Day, Emancipation Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day.
In late January, Gray (D) and Gandhi announced the city had a surplus, leading critics to question some of the 2011 cuts and cost-saving actions, like the furlough days.
In March, City Administrator Allen Lew wrote to city employee union representatives saying Gray wanted to repay the employees to thank them “for their diligent efforts and shared sacrifice in difficult times and rewarding our employees for their diligent efforts when circumstances permit him to do so.”
In 2010, organized labor and city employees played a crucial role in Gray’s successful campaign to unseat then mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). Public employees unions have also served as crucial backers to multiple D.C. Council members.
But Council member David A. Catania (I-At large) has questioned the repayment plan, noting the council is not planning to refund taxpayers, despite recent tax and fee increases. Catania argues District employees have made out well compared to many other states during the recession because it avoided mass layoffs of public employees.
Social service advocates are also concerned that the council appears to be prioritizing city employees when tens of millions of dollars have been cut from human services programs in recent years.
Brown denies that politics is influencing the decision to repay the money, noting both unionized and management city workers will be repaid.
“This is not employee unions getting their money back,” Brown said. “Everyone (in District government) is getting their money back.”
Since council members also had to give up four paid holidays last year, they too will be eligible for this year’s bonus if the plan is approved Tuesday. Brown said he will not accept the money.
Staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report