SAN JUAN, PR — In Puerto Rico, the base salary for public school teachers is $1,750 a month — a figure that hasn’t increased in 13 years and has forced specialist teacher Jessica Colón Cartagena to give tutoring students and running a caterer with her husband to make ends meet.
“They don’t like us,” she said. “We don’t want to say anything to politicians.”
So on Wednesday, Ms. Colón, 40, did not go to work at her school in Cayey, a mountain town in central Puerto Rico. Instead, she traveled to San Juan, the capital, and joined thousands of other teachers, firefighters and union members demanding better pay for public servants as Puerto Rico tries to pull itself out of the crisis. huge bankruptcy that has strained daily life on the island.
Frustrated by years of low wages and high utility rates, and now also rising consumer prices and housing costs, teacher-led government workers lobbied Governor Pedro R. Pierluisi for him to find ways around the annual budget set by a federally appointed tax council that has overseen Puerto Rico’s finances since 2016.
“We are here for wage justice,” Ms. Colón said. “We work very hard. There are a lot of teachers leaving.
The growing discontent comes just weeks after a federal judge approved Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring plan, which aims to put the island on a path to repaying creditors at a reduced rate and growing l ‘economy. But critics fear future financial hardship is inevitable. The oversight board approved modest pay rises for various public workers – including teachers, firefighters, corrections officers and police officers – but said the government must raise taxes or find savings elsewhere in the budget to allow for larger salary increases.
The situation for public workers has felt strained throughout Puerto Rico’s decade-long economic crisis and debt restructuring. About 23 percent of the nonfarm workforce is employed by the public sector, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Like public employees elsewhere, workers had accepted lower wages in exchange for higher benefits. But many of those benefits have shrunk or been lost in the face of the financial crisis, leaving workers unconvinced they wouldn’t have to accept further cuts as Wall Street creditors start getting paid back. The debt restructuring plan further reduced teachers’ pension benefits.
“They’re finding $7 billion for the bondholders,” said Jose N. Tirado, president of the firefighters’ union. “While first responders live in poverty.”
Firefighters earn a base salary of $1,500 a month, a figure that hasn’t changed in 22 years, Mr. Tirado said, making it difficult to recruit and retain employees. Many firefighters are working in poor conditions at stations badly damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and a wave of earthquakes in December 2019 and January 2020.
So many firefighters have left the profession — or moved to the mainland, where their salaries are much better — that the Puerto Rico Fire Department has more than 400 vacancies, Mr. Tirado said, in what should be a workforce of approximately 1,400 people. Police and healthcare workers also emigrated en masse. The island’s population decreased by 11.8% between 2010 and 2020 and is now around 3.3 million.
Lt. Víctor Lasalle Acevedo, a firefighter in the town of Aguadilla, said he would like to retire in five years, at the age of 55, after 33 years of service. But he may not be able to afford it.
“I would leave with a pension of less than $700 a month,” he says. “You can’t live off this anywhere.”
To get a monthly pension of $2,000, he would have to work until age 66, he added.
For now, Pierluisi has found a temporary workaround: On Monday, he offered teachers raises of up to $1,000 a month, starting July 1, to be paid by federal funds that will extend to 2024. He said he would like to find a way to make the increases permanent. On Thursday, Pierluisi offered firefighters a $500-a-month raise, also starting July 1, funded by federal dollars that would expire in 2026.
The promise of temporary raises for teachers earlier in the week, however, did little to quell the deepening unrest. Some of the frustration began to build after a teacher named Pablo Mas Oquendo died on February 1 in a car accident as he left his night job as a security guard. It is believed that he fell asleep from exhaustion from three jobs.
Mr Pierluisi’s announcement followed a wave of absenteeism – a “red flu” – of teachers leaving work in protest. Other public workers, including firefighters, have begun to follow suit. There was chatter that even the police could join in on.
Faced with the prospect of losing public safety personnel to a widespread work stoppage, Mr Pierluisi said on Monday that no one was “compelled” to be a police officer or firefighter and should consider other jobs s he was not satisfied.
These remarks did not sit well with many Puerto Ricans, who viewed them as insulting to chronically underpaid workers. Asked Tuesday if he regretted his remarks, Mr. Pierluisi answered no.
“Leaving work is evading one’s duty, unless you are really sick,” he said. “It’s not good. There is no justification; you can demonstrate and march outside of working hours.
On Wednesday, the day of the biggest protests yet, only 18% of teachers showed up for work, according to Puerto Rico’s Department of Education. Forty-two of the island’s 96 fire stations closed in protest, Mr Tirado said. Some teachers intended not to work on Thursday. A nationwide shutdown is scheduled for February 18.
Pierluisi extended the temporary increases to also include principals, regional superintendents and other administrators. He met with union leaders on Thursday and said he would approve of raising teachers’ base salary by about half, to $2,700 a month, and reintroducing a pay scale offering higher salaries. teachers with a postgraduate degree. The teachers’ unions are demanding a base salary of $3,500 a month.
Mr. Pierluisi had advocated for a $1,000 pay rise for teachers. But the board of supervisors rejected it and instead approved a more modest salary increase – about $470 a month. Half of it would only have started if the Department of Education had improved its payroll and attendance system and student attendance records, changes the Board of Supervisors pushed to improve governance.
The workers plan to keep the pressure on the government, as it has yielded some results. But they fear that their working conditions will be untenable in the long term.
“I want to stay in my country,” said Mónica Pérez Santiago, a 26-year-old teacher from Guaynabo. “It will be sad if in 30 years things are still the same.”