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Emergency Service Workers Take to the Streets in Protest

Feb. 9, 2007 — Holding their handmade placards high, more than 80 emergency service workers — including police, fire, port authority and emergency medical technicians — marched from the GERS building in Golden Rock to the Christiansted bandstand to protest changes made by the 26th Legislature to their retirement requirements and benefits.
The changes are included in a bill passed by the Senate in late December and subsequently signed into law by former Gov. Charles W. Turnbull. Over the past few weeks, hundreds of community members have taken to the streets in opposition to some of the bill's more controversial provisions — including sizable pay raises for the governor, lieutenant governor and senators.
Recently, individuals in both districts have raised concerns about another section of the bill that increases the retirement age for emergency service workers that were hired prior to Oct. 1, 2006. Instead of being able to retire at age 50, those employees with 30 years of credited service must retire at age 55 — or face a reduction in their annuity payments.
For those with at least 10, but less than 30, years of credited service, the retirement age has been increased to 62.
According to the bill, employees hired after the aforementioned date will now have to pay into the Government Employees Retirement System at a higher rate and must have 25 years of credited service before they can receive their full annuity.
Currently, emergency service workers with 20 years of credited service are eligible for full annuity, which amounts to 60 percent of their average salary.
Over the past few days, workers have voiced their opposition to the changes, saying that senators were dealing out a "punishment" for employees who had expected to receive their retirement benefits after putting in 20 years of service.
"Act 6905, take it back," the crowd shouted during Friday's protest. "If you can't take the heat, get out the seat. If you don't hear our voices, you will feel the recall."
Several police vehicles accompanied the marchers, blaring their sirens as they traveled slowly down King Street. Passing motorists beeped their horns in support, while merchants and shoppers paused to observe the marchers.
"You have awakened a sleeping giant," Police Benevolent Association Vice President Leroy Merchant shouted into the microphone. Merchant said employees are angry because the act increased their retirement payments and "we get nothing we want."
Several Government House employees came outside to hear the complaints of the emergency workers. A safari truck full of tourists watched curiously as their bus was stalled in traffic.
Newly appointed St. Croix Administrator Pedro Encarnacion emerged from his Government House office to listen to the complaints and take notes. The protesters urged him to speak to the crowd.
"I am proud of you," Encarnacion said. You came to demonstrate your concerns." Encarnacion, a former senator and firefighter, said the deJongh administration is "willing to meet with the unions," adding, "If [the bill] needs to be removed it can be."
Some of Encarnacion's comments did not sit too well with the protesters, prompting one to shout, "Didn't you vote for the bill?"
"That's right," Encarnacion replied, to which the crowd began shouting "Shame on you."
Encarnacion later said the marchers were "misguided." "It doesn't affect any of those guys that have five or more years in service," Encarnacion said.
The protest continued on to the bandstand, where marchers stood under the shade of a tree as union representatives continued to talk about their issues.
Several people advocating the recall of senators collected signatures from the disgruntled crowd.
EMS shop steward Jacqueline Greenidge spoke about the stress that is an everyday part of their job. She said technicians may respond to three deaths every day, and dealing with the families takes a toll on them.
"Every time they break down, we break down," she said. A16-year veteran, Greenidge vowed that union representatives will be watching "every bill that comes along."
"I have my time in, it doesn't affect me, but we have to stick together," she said.
Roberto Ramos, Fire Services union president, said in addition to the grievances aired today the fire service has many other problems that need to be addressed, including low manpower and the institution of a physical fitness program.
"A mandatory 25 years is not optional," he said.
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