Bloomberg Digs in Against Equal Benefits

Outlook still good for requiring contractors to provide domestic partner benefits

Mayor Mike Bloomberg has stepped up his assault on City Council legislation that would require city contractors to treat the domestic partners of employees the same as employees’ spouses. The city’s law department is saying that the Equal Benefits Bill violates state law by imposing a standard other than getting the best service at the best price and would require a charter referendum “because it curtails the Mayor’s powers.”

Council Member Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan), the chief sponsor of the bill, formally known as Intro 271, said, “If the Mayor had not signed the Living Wage Bill [which required contractors to pay a wage higher than the federal minimum wage], at least he would have a consistent position. Having signed it, he cannot now say that he does not support or agree with bills that impact on the city’s contracting process.” Asked why the mayor was taking a different stand on her bill, Quinn said, “He is going to have to speak for himself as it relates to his hypocritical position.” She called his invocation of the charter “ridiculous,” alleging, “Any time the Mayor doesn’t like something we do, he says it is a curtailment of his powers.”

Quinn noted that the city has over the years required contractors not to do business with the then apartheid government of South Africa and to abide by the McBride Principles in trading with Northern Ireland. “In some ways, the Equal Benefits Bill is less far reaching,” she said. She also insisted “the state law that requires the lowest bidder [to get a contract] has an exception as it relates to benefits—the city can set a higher standard.”

The mayor’s press office did not respond to a call for comment on Quinn’s charge of inconsistency nor on how the city has used its economic clout in the past to effect social change, like in Ireland and South Africa. Bloomberg supported the EBB during his 2001 run for mayor and has been backtracking ever since.

Martha Alfaro of the city’s law department said in an e-mail, “The Court of Appeals has said that state competitive bidding laws require terms in public contracts be linked to (1) obtaining the best work at the lowest possible price; and (2) prevention of favoritism, improvidence, fraud, and corruption… The proposed Domestic Partners bill, which also requires benefits to be extended to persons who are not performing work on city contracts, does not have a sufficient connection to there [sic] required goals.”

During the first hearing on the bill in November, several council members suggested that requiring health benefits for domestic partners contributed to more productive workers, thus benefiting the city. Among the testimony submitted was from Leslie Thrope, an employee of SEIU 32B-J Legal Fund, a city contractor, who was denied medical leave to care for her dying partner, Dominique Ghossein, and had to pay over $9,000 for her health benefits. The bill has since been named in honor of the women.

The law department did not respond by press time to a query as to whether helping the employees of contractors in this way might satisfy state law.

Quinn said that she now expects the bill to have its second and final hearing in February after the new Council “reconstitutes” itself. The Equal Benefits Coalition has amassed 36 co-sponsors for the legislation and will add Letitia James (Working Families Party-Brooklyn) to make a total of three votes more than needed for a veto-proof majority. Quinn is “confident” the Council will override the Mayor if necessary.

The bill also picked up the support of State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, who wrote to all council members this month urging them to adopt it. City Comptroller Bill Thompson, who oversees all city contracts, is a strong support of the legislation.

There had been concern that some religious contractors would balk at the legislation, but none has come forward yet. When representatives of the Bloomberg administration were the only ones to testify against Intro 271 in November, they said that their conversations with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York indicated the organization “might” not be able to comply with the law. A spokesman for the Salvation Army has indicated the same thing.

In San Francisco, where equal benefits have been law since 1997, the archdiocese of San Francisco complied and kept its contracts while the Salvation Army withdrew from providing services for the city.

Quinn recently had “a productive dialogue” with representatives of Agudath Israel, a major orthodox Jewish contractor with the city. “I don’t know where they’re going to end up,” she said. “They’re not supporting it, but they haven’t opposed it either.” She is also reaching out to Catholic Charities.

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