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Pols push wage law for utility

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State Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) is calling on the state to enact laws that would guarantee good wages, health care and other benefits to cleaners and security guards at Con Edison and other public utilities that serve Queens.

Gianaris and state Sen. Eric Schneider (D-Manhattan) have introduced a bill into Albany’s two legislative bodies that they say would prevent public utilities from creating “poverty wage” jobs. Con Ed has an electric power generating plant on 20th Avenue in Astoria as well as a learning center for employees on Vernon Boulevard in Long Island City.

“Con Edison must be held accountable to the workers who put in the elbow grease while its executives make millions sitting at their desks,” Gianaris said. “This unaccountable monopoly charges its customers higher rates each year, hands out millions of dollars in bonuses to its executives and yet the contracted workers toil under the poverty line with little or no benefits. This abuse must be put to an end.”

Con Ed responded to Gianaris’ bill in a statement, which criticized the assemblyman.

“This is an issue between a union and contract,” the statement read. “It is surprising, however, that in these hard economic times, an elected official would push legislation that would only serve to increase customer bills to appease special interests.”

Gianaris and western Queens elected officials have long criticized the utility for its response to the 10-day blackout in Astoria, Long Island City, Woodside and Sunnyside in 2006 that left hundreds of thousands of people without power and cost businesses millions of dollars in damages.

The assemblyman’s bill, which has been co-sponsored by Queens Assemblyman Jose Peralta (D-Jackson Heights) and Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), would eliminate an exemption for public utility companies in current state wage laws, which guarantee contracted service workers the private sector market rate.

The wage laws, which were passed in 1971, ensure good wages and health care for workers who clean or provide security for public buildings and facilities.

Gianaris pointed out that Con Ed reported $13 billion in revenue last year, while National Grid, which owns a power plant on Vernon Boulevard in Astoria, reported $23.3 billion. But many of the cleaners at these plants earn poverty wages as well as depend on public programs for food and health care, the assemblyman said.

Con Ed made $868 million in profits in 2009, but its contracted cleaners earn $8.50 per hour, while National Grid, which brought in $1.87 billion in profits during the 2008-09 fiscal year, pays its cleaners $9.50 per hour, Gianaris said.

“It’s really hard to make ends meet on $8.50 an hour,” said Fernando Cruz, a cleaner who works at a city Con Edison site but relies on public health care and food stamps to make ends meet. “Even though I work full time, my family needs public assistance to survive.”

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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