In Puerto Rico, protests increase amid higher wages

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Public employees in Puerto Rico shut down streets Friday, chanting with tambourines, drums and the clanking of spoons on pots to demand better pay.

As demonstrators raised signs reading “Fair wages now!”, the crowd danced and clapped.

This is the call Puerto Rico has heard in recent weeks. Government employees and their supporters have taken to the streets in support of government workers and supporters. They are encouraged by the thousands of teachers from public schools who quit classrooms in February to demand better pensions and raises.

Protests are increasing and Gov. is facing one of the greatest challenges. Pedro Pierluisi one year into his term.

“The people kicked out the U.S. military from Vieques. They threw out a governor. “We can make it happen,” stated Abner Dumey who teaches history at Naranjito in northern Japan.

Only legislators have an automatic cost of living increase in their salaries. The cost of living has risen, and many of the U.S. territories’ public employees have not seen a pay increase in over a decade.

Puerto Rico’s average water and power bills is nearly 60% more than that of the United States. According to the Institute of Statistics, Groceries are 18% less expensive than the mainland. However, housing and health care costs are lower.

Marcia Rivera is an economist and sociologo whose research focuses largely upon poverty and inequality. She said that government workers face rising prices and are getting the same salary as they did in 2008.

She said, “They’re tired.”

To make ends meet, many public employees have one or two other jobs.

Carlos Javier Vazquez is one of the paramedics in Barranquitas. He also teaches emergency medicine, runs an ambulance company, and provides support for his wife and four kids. He said that it is exhausting and not sustainable.

He said that he cannot choose because paramedics in Puerto Rico earn a $1,725 per month as a salary. It’s very difficult to live on that.

The governor offered teachers a $1,000 monthly raise in an effort to calm the protests. This was just days after the governor had promised teachers a $1,000 increase. The offer was extended to school principals, regional superintendents, and other educators a few days later.

He promised to give firefighters a $500 per month increase and paramedics a 30% increase.

Pierluisi’s actions only fuelled anger among other government employees. Some demanded their own pay raises while others reacted to the governor’s comment that no one is forced into becoming a police officer or firefighter.

Pierluisi’s promises of increases are contingent on federal funds, which will expire in the upcoming years. Many people didn’t believe him when he said he would find local funds to make the increases permanent.

Economists were also concerned by this promise. After decades of corruption, mismanagement and excessive borrowing, Puerto Rican leaders are now trying to restructure $70 billion in public debt. This was just months before Hurricane Maria devastated the island.

Antonio Fernos, an economist from Puerto Rico and a professor at a university, said that the government cannot make the increases permanent. “It’s Public Finance 101 101 of what to do.”

Fernos stated that one of the main reasons the government went bankrupt was the use of temporary funding to cover fixed costs.

He said, “They have not learned their lessons yet.” “Puerto Rico has been the epitome of government financial mismanagement. This is the worst timing possible for wage earners.

Rivera, the poverty researcher, agreed that no salary increase should ever be authorized without a financial plan in place. Rivera said that the governor shouldn’t respond to yelling and should not be managing affairs.

She said, “He has opened Pandora’s box.” He cannot satisfy all the demands he has made.”

Pierluisi’s announcement was made just weeks after the Puerto Rico federal control board approved a fiscal plan with smaller increases in pay for firefighters, teachers and other employees. It stated that the government’s financial situation did not permit for any more.

Although the governor stated that a new compensation plan would be in effect next year, it would increase wages for thousands more public employees. However, he said that he will not be able raise the salaries of all public workers.

He said Wednesday, “I clearly cannot please everyone.” It is impossible.

He also announced a 30% increase in pay for dispatchers and paramedics, as well as a 10% increase for medical emergency technicians. He also announced a $500 monthly raise for prison officers on Thursday.

While economists warn about the lack in financing, union leaders argue that the promised increases are only the first step. They argue that more funding is required and complain about the government’s plans to reduce pension benefits and raise the retirement age.

Wanda Ramos is a Caguas special education teacher. She said that the pension she will receive upon her retirement has been cut from $2,400 per month to $960. After not receiving a raise for 12 years, she said that it is difficult now.

I can only purchase the necessities. Ramos stated that she never has a full fridge and that a large portion of her income goes to her daughter’s college education.

Migdalia Santiago is also a teacher of special education and said that she has faced similar struggles.

She said, “Pay the lights. You don’t pay water.”

Puerto Rico’s public school teachers earn a $1,750 per month base salary and demand a minimum of $3,000. Firefighters, on the other hand, earn a $1,500 monthly base salary and are looking for $2,500 and a better pension plan.

Jose Tirado, Union leader, said that firefighters could retire at 55 after serving 30 years with up to 75% of their salaries. He stated that the minimum retirement age for firefighters is now 58, and that they receive only 33% of their salary.

Tirado stated that “the quality of life is poor, especially with the salaries they get.”