Homeless Shelter Workers Threaten Wage Strike

Clockwise from the back: Hugh Singh, Rob Wheaton - union organizer for AFSCME, Rachel Hansen, Elvyss Argueta

Clockwise from the back: Hugh Singh, Rob Wheaton - union organizer for AFSCME, Rachel Hansen, Elvyss Argueta

From the Portland Mercury, December 18, 2008

Spare Some Change? Homeless Shelter Workers Threaten Wage Strike

Employees of one of Portland’s largest homeless service providers say they could vote to go on strike in January unless they get the pay raise that has already been approved by Portland City Council.

Transition Projects, Inc. (TPI) runs two homeless shelters in Portland, and has more than 50 workers represented by a sub-group of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) union, Council 75. The average salary for these workers is $26,748, according to AFSCME, whose bargaining team is asking for a 3.5 percent cost-of-living increase from TPI. TPI officials are only prepared to offer two percent, the union says.

But TPI employees already met with Portland city commissioners in June, to persuade them to agree to a $73,000 increase in funding for TPI, to cover the cost-of-living increase. AFSCME council representative Rob Wheaton says it would cost TPI just $66,000 to give employees the 3.5 percent they are seeking, but that TPI is claiming it now needs some of the $73,000 to pay for increased utility costs at the agency.

“It’s as though we don’t have to pay for utilities ourselves,” says Hugh Singh, the laundry and clothing coordinator at TPI’s men’s shelter at NW 5th and Glisan.

“I’m not just poor, I’m po’. I can’t even afford the ‘o’ and the ‘r,'” says Elvyss Argueta, who helps 500 homeless people a day at the shelter’s service access center. “I want to help these people, but at the same time, I have to be able to live.”

“I feel insulted because I feel like they’re saying they don’t care if I stick around or not, and that they can replace me,” says Rachel Hansen, who works in veterans’ care, also at the Glisan shelter.

“It’s a racket,” says Wheaton, who points out that TPI has run at an operating excess with revenue averaging $250,000 a year for the last eight years, according to its tax returns, filed with the IRS. Meanwhile TPI Executive Director Doreen Binder, whose salary is listed as $82,422 on TPI’s IRS return for the year 2006-2007, told the Mercury she has no comment on the negotiations.

“We are quietly trying to play a constructive role in the TPI situation,” says Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees homeless services. “And I’m very hopeful that it will be resolved.”