City workers rally against budget cuts

Protesters gathered at a safe distance Tuesday, May 26, outside City Hall.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Flan Park recently received a layoff notice, one of about 400 expected to be issued to city workers before June 1 due to coronavirus-related budget cuts.

Park, who uses the pronouns they/them, had been working as an after-school leader for the Free Library of Philadelphia. They joined a rally Tuesday morning outside City Hall to call on Mayor Jim Kenney and City Council to search for other ways to balance the budget.

“We help to bridge educational gaps,” Park said. “Many seasonal workers have served our communities for 5, 10, 15 years.”

About 40 municipal employees joined the socially-distanced protest, and all wore masks. Organizers said they asked most people interested to stay home and contribute to the cause by calling the offices of elected leaders and spreading the campaign on social media. An online petition outlining the group’s demands has generated about 1,275 signatures.

Those who did gather held signs and chanted “no services, no city,” “Kenney’s cuts hurt” and “trash this budget,” among other rallying cries.

Demonstrators also raised concerns about personal protective equipment for essential city workers and virus-related protocols within departments.

Flan Park, a laid-off library worker, speaks Tuesday, May 26, during a rally held to protest proposed city budget cuts and job reductions. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Kenney, during his daily press briefing, said the city has set up a portal to help laid-off workers find other employment and has also been advising them on unemployment benefits.

“One of the saddest things we’ve had to do is lay people off, but based on the reality of our economic situation, that had to happen,” he said. “We tried to minimize the impact as best we could.”

Officials have not provided a breakdown of which departments will be affected by the staffing reductions, though they have said the layoffs will primarily affect non-unionized, part-time and seasonal workers.

Philly Municipal Workers United, which organized the protest, runs a Facebook group and is made up primarily of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) members, though it is not officially sanctioned by the union.

It’s a progressive group advocating the city raise taxes on big businesses and wealthy individuals, demand payment in lieu of taxes from large institutions like the University of Pennsylvania and take other measures to make up for its shutdown-related shortfall.

“We really want City Council and the mayor to be looking at how we can use progressive revenue reform to pay for the pandemic, not cutting city services for really vulnerable Philadelphians to pay the cost, because that’s what this budget is doing,” said Erin Hoopes, a library supervisor and PMWU member.

Librarian Perry Genevesi claps Tuesday, May 26, during a protest against proposed cuts to the city’s budget. PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Kenney argued that his proposal represents a balance between raising revenue through tax increases and reducing spending to fill the $650 million budget gap caused by the virus.

“On one hand I’ve got people complaining that we’re raising revenue we shouldn’t be raising, and on the other hand I’ve got people complaining that we shouldn’t cut,” he said.

Some City Council members have criticized the mayor’s plan for its modest tax hikes, questioning the logic of making people pay more during a period of widespread unemployment.

Council held its fourth virtual hearing examining Kenney’s budget proposal on Tuesday. The process has been expedited due to COVID-19, and council must pass a budget by June 30.

However, for city workers being let go during this first round of layoffs, the effects of the cuts will be felt earlier.

“This is being done before the budget’s even passed,” Hoopes noted.

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