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Monday, June 24, 2024

Teachers in Puerto Rico are leading the campaign for higher wages for public employees

As a special-education teacher in Puerto Rico, Jessica Colón Cartagena has been forced to tutor students and run a catering business with her husband in order to make ends meet. The base pay for public school teachers in the island has not increased in 13 years, and she has had no choice but to tutor students and run the catering business with her husband in order to make ends meet.

As a result, Ms. Colón, 40, did not report to her place of employment in Cayey, a mountain hamlet in central Puerto Rico, on Wednesday. As an alternative, she travelled to San Juan, the island’s capital, where she joined thousands of other public school teachers, firefighters, and labour union members in demanding higher wages for public employees as Puerto Rico attempts to emerge from a massive bankruptcy that has strained daily life on the island.

Federally appointed fiscal board that has overseen Puerto Rico’s finances since 2016 has been putting pressure on Gov. Pedro R. Pierluisi to find ways around the annual budget set by the fiscal board, which has been frustrated by years of low wages and high utility rates, as well as rising consumer prices and housing costs. Government employees, led by teachers, have been putting pressure on Gov. Pedro R. Pierluisi to find ways around the annual budget.

Puerto Rico’s mounting dissatisfaction comes only weeks after a federal court authorised the island’s debt restructuring plan, which is designed to put the island on a road to repay creditors at a reduced rate while simultaneously expanding the economy. However, some sceptics believe that future financial hardship is unavoidable. Various public employees, including teachers, firefighters, correctional officers, and police officers, have received modest wage increases from the oversight board; however, the board has stated that the government must raise taxes or find savings elsewhere in the budget in order to accommodate larger pay increases.

Throughout Puerto Rico’s decade-long economic crisis and debt restructuring, the working conditions of public employees have been precarious at best. As reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the public sector employs around 23 percent of the nonfarm labour force in the United States.

Workers had accepted reduced compensation in return for more benefits, just as public employees in other parts of the country had done. However, many of these perks were reduced or eliminated as a result of the financial crisis, leaving employees with little confidence that they would not be forced to accept more reductions when Wall Street creditors began to be paid back. Teachers’ retirement benefits were significantly decreased as a result of the debt restructuring plan.

firefighters get a basic income of $1,500 per month, a number that has been constant for 22 years, according to Mr. Tirado, making it difficult to attract and maintain people in the field. Many firemen are forced to operate in substandard circumstances in stations that were seriously damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and a slew of earthquakes in December 2019 and January 2020, respectively.

Because so many firemen have left the profession — or relocated to the mainland, where their wages are far higher — Puerto Rico’s fire service now has more than 400 openings, according to Mr. Tirado, out of a total work force of around 1,400 firefighters. Police officers and health-care employees have also flocked to the United States in large numbers. The population of the island decreased by 11.8 percent between 2010 and 2020, and it is presently around 3.3 million people.

The municipality of Aguadilla’s Lt. Vctor Lasalle Acevedo, who has been a fireman for 33 years, said he plans to retire in five years when he becomes 55, after 33 years of service. However, it’s possible that he won’t be able to buy it.

For the time being, Mr. Pierluisi has devised a temporary workaround: on Monday, he announced that teachers would get rises of up to $1,000 per month, effective July 1, which would be paid for by federal funds that would last until 2024. He said that he would want to discover a mechanism to make the increases indefinitely effective. On Thursday, Mr. Pierluisi said that firemen would get a $500-per-month increase, which would take effect on July 1 and be supported by federal money that would expire in 2026.

Although teachers were promised temporary pay increases earlier in the week, this did nothing to calm the escalating dissatisfaction, which continued to grow. On Feb. 1, a teacher named Pablo Mas Oquendo died in a vehicle accident as he was leaving his night work as a security guard. Some of the irritation started to grow following his death, which occurred as he was leaving his night job. He is believed to have fallen asleep as a result of the tiredness he had from working three jobs.

Mr. Pierluisi has called for a $1,000 increase in the pay of public school teachers. However, the oversight board had rejected it and had instead granted a modest salary increase of around $470 a month in lieu of it. Half of it would have been available only if the Education Department had upgraded its payroll and attendance system, as well as student attendance records, measures that the oversight board has advocated for in order to strengthen governance.

Workers want to keep up the pressure on the government, now that they have seen some outcomes as a consequence of their efforts. However, they are concerned that their working circumstances may become intolerable in the long term.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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