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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Salary hike doesn’t forestall teachers walkout set for Wednesday

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi

By John McPhaul

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia announced on Monday, two days before a threatened one-day work stoppage by teachers on Wednesday, that the government will grant an increase of $1,000 a month to teachers in the public education system with federal money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER).

However, Pierluisi noted that the pay raise is a temporary measure in which recurring state funds are to be identified “to make it permanent.” In other words, as of July, instead of receiving only the $235 that was approved in the Fiscal Plan, teachers will receive a $1,000 pay increase with the difference of $765 coming from federal funds.

Starting Jan. 1, 2023, meanwhile, instead of an increase of $470 that has already been approved, teachers will receive a $1,000 pay hike and the difference of $530 will come from federal funds.

“We are going to supplement with federal funds the increase in their salaries from state funds that has already been approved,” said the governor, who will request a review of the Fiscal Plan certified by the Financial Oversight and Management Board, with the purpose of seeing to it that government finances keep improving not only for teachers, but for all public servants.

Pierluisi noted that apart from the salary hike for teachers, the central government is promoting a series of actions to obtain more funds in order for the government to deliver definitive salary justice for teachers. For example, the federal funds that reach Puerto Rico will be used to finance the health card, “which will mean savings for our state budget,” once Congress approves them, and those savings can be used to supplement the pay increase, he said.

Added to those are other initiatives that could impact Treasury collections, the governor said, such as the economic growth of the island and the federal tax changes that would impose a minimum tax on foreign companies.

“Our team has done the necessary calculations and consultations with the federal government, and we have been able to identify federal ESSER funds to provide incentive payments to teachers,” Pierluisi said at a press conference where he was accompanied by designated Education Secretary Eliezer Ramos Parés and Financial Advisory Authority and Fiscal Agency of Puerto Rico Executive Director Omar Marrero. “These payments will supplement the salary increase from state funds that have already been approved. Therefore, we are going to ensure that teachers have a raise of $1,000 per month and thus ensure that we provide them with a more decent salary, as they deserve.”

Meanwhile, teachers’ representatives said the pay raises are not enough to forestall the work stoppage and march scheduled for Wednesday and organized by the Public Education Defense Coalition (FADEP by its Spanish initials).

“[The governor] didn’t touch upon retirement and retirement is the main point of contention,” Puerto Rico Federation of Teachers spokeswoman Hilda Chinea said.

Pierluisi’s announcement was made after the governor met with Puerto Rico Teachers Association President Víctor Bonilla Sánchez and other union officials who were also present at the announcement.

“I want to be clear, protest or no protest, I have always listened to them. I respect your statements and value your demands,” Pierluisi said. “You can be sure that, just like in this case, I continue to work and look for alternatives to be able to address the claims of our employees and our people. There are no magic wands here, here what you can count on is hard work, mine and that of my entire work team.”

The governor also noted that he objected to the proposed cuts of 8.5% that the oversight board intended to implement on pensions for government retirees.

The education secretary meanwhile commented that “the essential role of our educators in the lives of hundreds of thousands of students in the public system is evident, so it is essential to pay them [accordingly] and recognize the value of their work.”

“This increase, together with other efforts to train and provide our teachers with more and better equipment, is part of our commitment,” Ramos Parés said. “We will continue combining efforts to strengthen our educational system.”

The governor last year granted permanence to more than 1,000 temporary teachers and changed the probationary status of more than 800. In addition, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the central government used federal funds to provide teachers with additional incentives of $2,500 in “Premium Pay” and an additional $2,500 that will arrive in May.

“I understand the claim of our long-term teachers and I sympathize with them because they are right,” the governor said. “For this reason, I asked the [oversight board] to approve an increase of $1,000 a month for each teacher. However, they [the board] refused. Due to the amount of money that we have to allocate to guarantee the funds for the payment of pensions, including those of the teachers, and that the federal funds that we expected to help finance the government health plan have not yet materialized, the board only approved an increase of $470 in two installments, $235 now in the summer and another $235 in January, upon meeting certain requirements.”

On Wednesday, the teachers’ walkout will start with a rally at 8 a.m. at Luis Muñoz Rivera Park and then proceed to La Fortaleza at 9 a.m.

“The teachers are on their feet and the thousands who took to the streets of Old San Juan [on Sunday] will return this Wednesday, along with many more, while the presidents of our three unions visit La Fortaleza in response to the invitation made to us by Yamil Ayala, adviser to the governor, a meeting coordinated since Feb. 2,” said Migdalia Santiago, president of the teachers organization EDUCAMOS. “The invitation to the governor has been made since the afternoon of the caravan; we will be waiting for him at the meeting.”

Liza Fournier, president of UNETE, said the objective is to determine the status of the three bills before the Legislature that are related to the teaching profession: House Bill 1136, which conditions the issuance of bonds so that active teachers’ pensions are not frozen; House Bill 513, which seeks to increase the base salary of teachers to $2,700; and Senate Bill 573 for the payment due to teachers from 2009 and recurring payment going forward.

“As part of the actions that will be carried out during the week, which begin on Monday, and that were agreed to by the FADEP to keep up the demand for salary justice and decent retirement for teachers, demonstrations will continue in front of schools at various hours of the day and school communities and the entire country will be called upon to engage in ‘cacerolazos’ [banging on pots] every night from February 7 to 11 at 8 p.m.,” said Mercedes Martínez, president of the Federation of Teachers. “We call on the country to protest at the schools on Tuesday, and on Thursday we make a call to the House and the Senate, starting at 8 in the morning, demanding that the legislative bills be approved once and for all. For Friday, Feb. 11, starting at 3:30 in the afternoon we are called to be in all the mayors’ offices in the country. We will be calling on the mayors and the municipal legislative assemblies to approve resolutions in favor of dignified retirement and salary justice … so that the legislators and the executive [branch] meet the demands of the teaching profession.”

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