Crisis, what crisis? You don’t have to look at the numbers behind the city’s new, $92 billion budget to see that neither the mayor nor the City Council takes the COVID-19 calamity seriously: Just to look at the number of workers the city plans to keep on board over the next year.
By next June, Gotham expects to be able to pay 329,152 people, ranging from 131,358 teachers to 1,317 mayoral-office staffers. You might imagine this figure represents a sharp cut to the 2019 levels, the last fiscal year before the pandemic hit (that is, the fiscal year that ended last June).
You would be wrong. Last summer, the city had 332,315 workers. The projected loss of 3,163 jobs is less than 1 percent of the number of workers.
No one wishes a job loss on anyone, particularly when there are few jobs to be had. But something just doesn’t add up here. As of late June, 1.4 million New Yorkers in the private and nonprofit economies had lost their jobs, a staggering one-third of the pre-COVID-19 workforce of nearly 4.1 million people employed in February.
Somehow, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council expect a decimated private economy to pay to hold the public-employee workforce entirely harmless, when you remember the fact that people retire every year, anyway.
And how will the city achieve even these modest cuts? It will cut 1,106 police officers, mainly by cancelling one recruit class.
Other than that, Hizzoner and the council haven’t sent any signal at all that any department could stand some cuts.
His own mayoralty staff, for example, will fall by just four people, compared to the 1,321 employed last summer. (The mayor’s staff has already thoughtfully self-executed half of these cuts, with two press staffers quitting last week.)
Horrific cuts to the Department of Education, as Chancellor Richard Carranza warned of last week? The department’s roster of civilians — not direct educators — will actually increase compared to last summer, by 465 people, to 25,654.
And despite the overall modest cuts to the payroll, the amount spent on wages and benefits will actually increase, to $29.7 billion, up from $29.1 billion in 2019. A vanished tax base, then, is expected to pay more for fewer public services.
New York is almost certain to have to ask the whole public workforce for a wage freeze, and the sooner it’s done, the more pain avoided later, in fewer front-line layoffs. And as the Empire Center’s E.J. McMahon has observed, it is possible, under state law, to open up union contracts to execute such a move in an emergency.
But there is another thing the city hasn’t even considered, and one that would affect nonunion workers, as well: a firm pay cap. In 2019, more than 7,700 city workers made more than $150,000. They ranged from Carranza, who took home $363,000, to the mayor himself, who made $258,000. School principals and administrators, police captains, top mayoral, city council, DA and comptroller staffers (and other elected officials themselves), in-house finance staff — all make well into the comfortable six figures.
Many of these people are nonunion workers — indeed, this analysis doesn’t include overtime pay for hourly workers — and could voluntarily agree to cap their pay at $150,000 until the private economy has recovered its pre-lockdown jobs. For the rest, the mayor and the council could go to the state for emergency powers.
Forcing public servants to live temporarily within a salary that is comfortable even for New York City — especially since many households have more than one earner — isn’t just symbolic. It would save $200 million a year, according to an analysis of raw data provided by SeeThroughNY. That’s a whole fifth of the $1 billion in draconian cuts the mayor warns he will have to make.
And yes, the symbolism is important. The mayor and his schools chancellor love to talk about inequality, yet he is holding himself harmless in this crisis even as he threatens to lay off low-paid front-line workers later this year. And the mayor, with no housing or transportation costs, has few bills to pay, compared to millions of New Yorkers struggling right now.
De Blasio and the council, of course, are counting on another round of federal bailout. Aid is warranted; this is, after all, a historic crisis. But they may be more successful if Congress sees that federal money isn’t going to protect well-paid white-collar (and, yes, disproportionately white) workers from even a nominal sacrifice.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor of City Journal. Twitter: @NicoleGelinas