WEST ORANGE, NJ — When Chris Babinski, a level-five Communications Operator for the West Orange Police Department (WOPD), recently addressed the township council on the state of stagnant wages for the WOPD communications department.

Babinski, a 40-year West Orange resident and a WOPD employee for more than 30, said that although many believe his job is simply to push a button in order to connect the caller to an officer, it’s “not easy for eight hours a day, sometimes 16 hours a day, seeing people at their worst.”

According to Babinski, his job behind the scenes is to “comfort people in their time of need; consult people who lost a loved one; manage an active fire scene; [or to] try to quiet someone who’s angered [who] may have had their car stolen or other property stolen from them.”

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He explained that in the 1990s, the Office of Emergency Telecommunication Systems (OATS) developed an enhanced 911 system with better capabilities, such as having 911 information provided to dispatchers. According to Babinski, this meant the dispatchers could “get longitude and latitude” and “track missing persons and that “the liability increased tremendously” with the enhancement.

But what it did not increase was the salary, he said, adding that while most of the town is asleep, dispatchers are listening to people involved in domestic violence disputes, people who have had their car stolen and people crying as their house burns down—all for the starting salary of $21,180, which Babinski noted is below federal poverty level.

“The people you put in charge of saving lives, your first first responders […] as soon as that call is connected and made, we are unseen,” he said. “We are responsible for ensuring the safety of our police and firefighters. We are the ones who are there first and see people at their worst…I can go to Burger King and drop fries for $25,500. What’s the value on this position?”

Babinski also said that he has seen at least 179 people complete their training with the West Orange Police Department Communications over the last 30 years.

Noting that he paid $450 for his son’s Union County Police Academy certification, $350 for his enhanced 911 training at the Essex County Police Academy, $350 and $80 for his CPR certification, Babinski said he assumes others are paying the same amount for their certifications. However, he added, Township of West Orange has lost more than 179 potential dispatchers by not offering a competitive salary.

“We are not paying a competitive salary here to retain a healthy employee base,” he said. “We’re getting laypeople that are coming, getting training and walking out the door.”

He added that his son was employed by the Montclair Police Department with a starting salary of $48,000, while Babinski currently makes $53,000 after being there for 30 years.

“How do you expect to keep people here, paying them below federal poverty level?” he said. “It’s disgusting.”

According to Babinski, members of the communications center—including single mothers of two or three children—are currently working two or three jobs in addition to their position in the communications division because they “can’t live on [their] salaries.

“We’re asking for a fair contract,” he said. “You have met with members of the police and fire department and communication division that are getting balanced bills now for stuff that was covered because insurance policies are being churned for a better rate—a better rate for the town, but not for your memberships.”

Using himself as an example, Babinski elaborated that he only paid $40 out of pocket to see his counselor once a week in 1999 compared to his current charge of $106.

“I can barely make ends meet with what I’m making now, working 78 hours a week,” he said, adding that overtime “is incredible, it’s devastating and it’s wearing us down.”

Babinski added that mental health support is important to first responders, noting that nine New York Police Department members have taken their own lives in 2019, according to a recent “New York Times” article.

“If you think it’s easy—seeing people at their worst for eight to 16 hours a day—try it,” he said. “It takes a lot of guts to do what we do. It takes a lot of strength to do what we do, and we feel devalued because we’re not getting paid to do what we do.

“I’m 53 years sold; I am out of time; I’m out of patience. We need relief […] in a fair contract. That’s all we’re asking for. I need all of you to advocate for us, be the voices that will not come up here. I will come up here and I’m not going away. As a union representative, I will continue to be here until these salaries are adjusted.”

He continued that being a communications operator is no longer seen as a “go-between job.” For many, it is now a “career field,” but at a $21,120 salary before deductions, most are seeking jobs elsewhere because the salary is unsustainable, he said. Babinski, who is at top pay, stated that he has already fought foreclosure four times.

“Please don’t mistake what I do up here as arrogance or anger,” he said. “What is arrogant is to be told at the negotiation table, ‘Why are you here? If you can make so much money somewhere else, go somewhere else’…

“Pay our police department what they deserve; pay our fire department what they deserve and pay us what we deserve. I’m tired, going through the negotiating, while being treated as if we’re all coming in with a gun and a mask…

“Why am I here? Because I love my job. I love my community…I’m in a position where I can genuinely help someone. I am the first first responder.”

In response, Councilman Joe Krakoviak said that as much as the governing body “would like to be more influential on some of these issues,” the council is “somewhat constrained by the form of government that we operate in.”

He explained that when it comes to labor contract issues, the township’s form of government gives the mayor “significant power in negotiating contracts.”

“What happens with the negotiations with our unions is the administration and the mayor negotiate the contract and then bring it to the council, which either accepts or rejects [the contract],” he said.

Councilwoman Susan McCartney, who thought that Babinski’s words were “heartfelt,” told Babinski that the council members all values what the dispatchers do, but reiterated that they are not able to sit at the negotiating table.

“We didn’t even discuss this at the budget hearing,” she said. “So, it’s really up to the administration to tell us where we are with negotiations, because we haven’t had an update.”

Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown added that it is “utterly disgusting that we can sit here, having passed the budget within the confines that it was passed, and there are members of our community that live below the poverty line.”

“I have never been shy to express my utter support for our first responders,” she said to Babinski. “I just want to thank you, personally; you spoke passionately. I really appreciate you bringing this to light. I am also a union person and labor supporter, so I stand in solidarity and always have with all my union brothers and sisters.”

Council President Jerry Guarino also complimented Babinski for speaking from his heart and agreed that “people should be paid a fair wage.”

“We will discuss it,” he said. “We will do what we can do.”

Agreeing that the starting salary is “extremely low,” Councilwoman Michelle Casalino motioned to get an update from Business Administrator John Sayers on state of negotiations during an executive session following the council meeting.