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V.I. Government Unlikely to Pay Retroactive Wages Any Time Soon

July 18, 2006 — Ongoing union negotiations and retroactive wages owed to government employees were the main topics of discussion during the first round of budget hearings Tuesday, as senators questioned representatives from the Office of Collective Bargaining on a recommended General Fund budget request of nearly $648,000.
According to Karen M. Andrews, chief negotiator for Collective Bargaining, the office has been working to address both issues and is currently keeping up with recently negotiated increases. She explained that this year's executive budget includes $8 million for projected salary increases and $12 million for already negotiated increases–this in addition to a $15.8 million appropriation made earlier this year in a supplemental budget bill passed by the Legislature and subsequently signed into law by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull.
Andrews added that the office has also made it clear that negotiations with various unions would not proceed unless there is identified funding.
She also noted that Collective Bargaining has implemented step increases for members of the American Federation of Teachers and is working on a system linking salary increases to employee performance.
To date, approximately $116.3 million in recurring revenues have gone toward upgrading the salaries of unclassified and classified government employees, retirees and employees of the University of the Virgin Islands, Andrews added. Of that amount, approximately $97 million addressed salary increases for unionized employees.
However, Andrews added that the government has yet to tackle the approximately $394 million worth of retroactive wages owed to government employees for increases negotiated as far back as 1994. "Short of winning the Powerball, I don't think we're going to be addressing that issue any time soon," she said.
That $394 million includes, among others: $120.3 million for the American Federation of Teachers, $76.9 million for the Seafarer's International Union, $64.8 million for the United Steelworkers of America, and $29.9 million for the now defunct Marine Engineers Beneficial Association.
However, Andrews said the office has made strides in reducing the number of expired collective bargaining agreements and has completed negotiations with eight collective bargaining units within the past nine months.
Andrews said she hopes to conclude negotiations with five more units by the end of fiscal year 2006–including the United Steelworkers Union Supervisors, which has been without a collective bargaining agreement since 1999.
While this issue has been in the spotlight during recent months — supervisors have claimed that Andrews initially refused to come to the table to develop a contract, then intentionally filed a suit against the group to further stall negotiations — Andrews said during Tuesday's meeting that she has withdrawn the case on appeal in District Court and would continue negotiating with the supervisors until a collective bargaining agreement has been executed.
"The Office of Collective Bargaining challenged the United Steelworkers (USW) representation of the supervisors because USW already represents subordinate employees in the central government's agencies and departments," Andrews explained. "On Dec. 2, 2005, I made a formal request to the attorney general to withdraw the case … due to significant errors made in filing the case."
Andrews said negotiations with the supervisors have been ongoing since Dec. 20, 2005, and "will conclude whenever we're finished." She added, however, that Collective Bargaining might have to come back to the Legislature during the upcoming fiscal year with a $4 million request to fund the supervisors' increases.
Andrews was unavailable to comment further on the matter after the meeting and did not return several calls made to her office Tuesday afternoon.
In response to questions from senators about the office's budget for FY 2007, Andrews said she is "happy with what the governor has recommended."
She said a large chunk of the budget ($410,729) would go toward personnel costs, which includes salaries and fringe benefits for six filled positions and two vacancies for computer operators in both districts. An additional lump-sum appropriation of $30,000 is included for payments made to employees resigning or retiring at the end of this year.
Other sections of Collective Bargaining's operating budget include:
–$52,000 to purchase a new vehicle for the agency's St. Croix office, along with new computers and "heavy-duty" scanning equipment.
–$50,538 for professional services, communications, travel, rent for its facility on St. Croix and funds for repairs and office equipment, among other things.
Present during Tuesday's meeting were Sens. Liston Davis, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Neville James, Norman Jn Baptiste, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Ronald E. Russell and Usie R. Richards.
Sen. Roosevelt C. David was absent.
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