More than 200 seasonal city employees have been working without a contract for more than a year, for outdated wages and with no health benefits. Plus, without clear direction from city council, their situation may not improve.

The labor contract for the workers—who handle things like park maintenance and water meter readings—expired on June 30, 2005. The normally simple contract renewal process got tripped up by the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 483 union, which began asking for benefits for the workers, who have historically been denied healthcare.

Despite the Portland City Council's (and particularly City Commissioner Sam Adams') increasing support for health benefits for all city workers and contractors, the city's human resources department refused to offer those benefits to seasonal workers.

"The city's position in the past, and the city's position presently—unless something major changes—is that these benefits will not be extended to these workers," says the city's Labor Relations Manager Ed Ruttledge.

The fight dragged on for a year, with LIUNA pushing hard for an agreement that would provide at least some benefits.

"The difficulty was trying to convince the human resources department that the city council wanted some kind of health benefits," says the union's Rob Wheaton.

But with both sides at an impasse and employees still slaving away for old wages, the union agreed to a contract that would give the workers a cost of living wage (they were making around $10 an hour) while setting aside the benefits problem until next year.

But when the contract came up for a vote in front of city council last week, it hit a roadblock named Sam Adams. The ordinance was listed as an "emergency" vote, which meant it needed unanimous support from the commissioners. But Adams' office had been working with LIUNA and knew about the benefits issue. So Adams took the opportunity to grill Ruttledge on the lack of healthcare coverage.

"How would you justify this, when looking at the spirit, if not the requirements that we put on our contractors to provide some amount of benefits? How would you suggest we justify the discrepancy between these workers—who work directly for us—and the workers of our contractors?" he asked.

Ruttledge explained that there were "mechanical" issues with finding coverage for employees who only work 90 to 120 days a year, and deflected the questions as "something that will need to be looked at over the coming year" and "a number of issues that all parties will have to explore."

Dissatisfied with those answers, Adams voted a firm no on the contract ratification. Since the contract required a unanimous vote, the contract would have failed—except that Adams pushed to amend the ordinance by removing the "emergency clause," delaying the vote by a week. That vote was expected to happen on Wednesday, August 23.

According to LIUNA's Wheaton, the contract as it stands—no benefits, moderate cost of living raise—has enough votes to ultimately pass through city council, despite Adams' steadfast opposition. But what is less clear is the fate of the seasonal workers over the next year.

Wheaton says he is working with the offices of Commissioners Adams, Randy Leonard, and Erik Sten to figure out a way to provide benefits to the workers, although it's unlikely that they'll end up with anything resembling the benefits offered to fulltime city employees.

For his part, Ruttledge says his department is also looking at options for health coverage, but he's quick to point out that insurance companies will likely see the workers as a high-risk group. He's even quicker to point out that the problem isn't his department's fault, but that of the federal government.

"We as a society have decided that healthcare should be tied to occupation," Ruttledge says. "Other industrial societies tie it to citizenship, or even just residency."

"I've been doing this work for a long time," he continued, "and healthcare coverage has never had an easy answer."