‘We demand respect’
PRASA union workers air discrimination, compensation grievances in front of authority headquarters & Labor Dept.
By Richard Gutiérrez
Work is not always pleasant; after all, some days are probably going to be better than others for those in the workforce. However, if the overall working conditions aren’t considered sustainable by the employees, they have the right to protest and make their grievances known. That is why on Monday, the Authentic Independent Union (UIA by its Spanish initials) of PRASA (Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority) stood in front of PRASA offices in San Juan to protest what they say is discrimination against older employees of the public corporation due to the fact that while the newer employees received a pay raise, older employees who have worked with the authority for a longer period of time did not.
Apart from the unionized workers’ insistence that the meal compensation is too low because of the high cost of living on the island, PRASA employees are also demanding better compensation for work performed on holidays and more control over the rising cost of deductibles under healthcare plans. UIA President Luis de Jesús Rivera demanded respect from PRASA executives after he said they refused to engage in any sort of negotiation with the union.
The protest started at PRASA but eventually moved on to the Department of Labor and Human Resources, where de Jesús Rivera was able to begin negotiations. All the issues on the table are related to inflation, which the workers believe is the main culprit. They also believe that lower pay is what has caused island employees to leave for the mainland where the pay is better. In other words, the pay doesn’t match the current cost of living on the island, and so many employees are forced to leave to find more financial stability.
“This is the first of many protests to come in the next few weeks to demand that PRASA negotiate in good will,” the union president said. “Even though the negotiations started on May 19 … three months later we’re in the same boat. The negotiations have yet to advance at all -- nothing’s been done. Even worse than that, on July 27, the executive president [Doriel Pagán Crespo] assured me that on Friday, June 30 PRASA would submit a proposal to the Union to adjust the dietary payments in line with the current cost of living. Unfortunately, PRASA has yet to do this and in fact, two months later they have notified us that they would not submit a proposal. Those are bad negotiations.”
Everyone needs water to live, and the UIA believes strongly that keeping its employees on the island should be a top priority for PRASA. Regarding the economics of the situation, de Jesús Rivera stated that “in terms of salaries, PRASA has refused to negotiate the impact of the new state minimum wage.”
“They allegedly stated that the Financial [Oversight and] Management Board doesn’t allow them to make such adjustments,” the UIA president said. “This only demonstrates that superiors in PRASA have been incapable of providing evidence to the [oversight] board that the way they adjusted salaries was discriminatory against older employees. Discriminating against employees because of their age is prohibited in any place of work, by state and federal laws, which also apply to the board.”
It would seem that austerity would be an issue all across the board for PRASA; however, the union says, the authority is currently offering bonuses to executives.
“Apart from the fact that they raised the salaries of newer employees and left out older employees, it is important to note that [meal compensation] payments are not an economic benefit, it’s a reimbursement of expenses we have throughout the month,” UIA Executive Treasurer Héctor Mota Ríos told the STAR. “The diet payments are currently $8 a day. They have been at the same rate, which is $8, since 2002. With $8 you can’t buy a meal anymore. It is clear inflation has had a great effect on our economy, but the agency doesn’t seem to get that.”
“They’ve been denying a price raise in the reimbursements for more than a decade at this point,” the official added. “We made a claim in one of the negotiations and they offered a proposal of $8.50, which we consider to be highly disrespectful.”
“On top of that,” Mota Ríos said, “the deductibles on healthcare are exorbitant; a lot of coworkers have had to stop treating themselves because of these high deductibles. We are high-risk employees constantly exposed to chemicals and bacteria, so healthcare is not a benefit, it’s a need.”
“They also forgot about us when they gave bonuses to public employees,” the union treasurer continued. “Our department is extremely important for the island, and we want to tell the governor that he has to remember us. Even though we are essential workers, they do not treat us as such. It’s very frustrating. They don’t solve any of these issues and the [PRASA] governing board only becomes richer by adding a $6,000 bonus to their pockets, while they are paid between $3,520.83 and $3,791.66 every month.”
Currently, de Jesús Rivera is in talks with the Labor and Human Resources Department and PRASA to solve the utility’s labor gridlock once and for all. No details from those negotiations were available as of press time Monday.