Several months ago, a local print newspaper listed the general indebtedness of the Virgin Islands Government. On that list was a sum of money in excess of $270 million dollars owed in back wages to government employees. The sum listed was is excess of one quarter of a billion dollars. This has been a troubling revelation for me and it has caused me to reflect on an article that I wrote six years ago when the back pay figure was somewhere between $80 million and $100 million.
In that early article, I recognized that the Virgin Islands Government would be hard-pressed to find the money then morally, but not legally, owed to its employees. I recognized that it was indeed sad that employees would be working for the same wages for many years with apparently no relief insight. In my article, I suggested that the government embark upon a program to access sufficient funding to allow for an across the board, single payment, or some other devised formula that would result in each employee receiving a separate check in an amount to be determined as a consolation for the plight that the employee was in.
This payment would have been part of an overall plan that would have the government work day reduced from an eight-hour day to a seven-hour day or a 35 work week with no reduction in each employee's annual compensation. My approach even contemplated the implementation of flextime in those agencies where this could be applied. I saw our traffic issue being addressed, in part, by the implementation of this change. I also saw parents being provided more time to become engaged in after-school and/or community-based activities; thereby promoting both the interests of their children and the community.
As viewed from my perspective at the time of my article, each employee would in effect have been offered an increase in his rate of pay that would have been further supplemented by a one-time lump sum cash payment and more personal time. Of course, this suggested approach was totally ignored. Six years later we are finally addressing one part of the package, the back pay issue!
I am currently aware of employees who have not received an increase in pay for more than 10 years. I still believe that a multifaceted approach should be considered since once it is implemented, there should be no further discussion about back pay. The information that is currently out on the proposed settlement with the teachers' union suggests that the government is committing to pay at least 50 percent of back pay morally owed to teachers. If this is correct, is it not safe to conclude that the other employee groups will eventually seek at least the same treatment? If the published figure in excess of one quarter of a billion dollars as being owed to government employees is verifiable, it appears that a settlement with all employees at the same rate that has been offered to the teachers will be in excess of $100 million.
I believe that under the proposed plan offered earlier and restated here, a permanent settlement of this matter can be accomplished with less than one-half of that figure. To eliminate the recurrence of the back pay problem, my view is that the legislature should resume the function of adopting pay plans for government employees that it gave up several years ago. It should also remove salary and wage negotiations from the collective bargaining process that local law currently allows. By doing so, the legislature will become integrally involved in providing the funds required to pay public employees regularly scheduled and easily calculated salary increases.
I believe that a comprehensive, rather than a piecemeal approach, is required if we are to be successful in moving the territory ahead and beyond the issue of back pay for public employees.
Gaylord A. Sprauve
COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH TO TEACHERS' PAY
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