In an apparent sick-out Wednesday, dozens of government employees across several departments failed to show up for work Wednesday, prompting Gov. John deJongh Jr. to denounce the work action and praise workers who did not take part.
V.I. Chief Labor Negotiator Valdemar Hill confirmed Wednesday evening that his office received multiple reports of unusual numbers of absent employees.
Defined by Webster’s as "an organized absence from work on the pretext of illness in order to apply pressure to management without an actual strike," the alleged sick-out affect several departments, including the V.I. Internal Revenue Bureau, the Department of Finance, and hall monitors within the Department of Education.
Teachers and paraprofessionals in Education were not involved and regardless of the department, the employees who did not show up were all represented by the United Steelworkers, he said.
“In IRB, I was informed they called in sick; while in Finance, I am told they didn’t call, but just did not show up,” Hill said.
While no strike or job action was formally declared, Hill said his office is treating it as an improper work stoppage. Because the stoppage was a violation of the union’s work contract, those involved may be subject to disciplinary action, he said.
In a statement, deJongh denounced the actions of the workers and of the union leaders who he believes organized the sick-outs saying that their bad actions were simply unjustified given the territory’s fiscal situation.
“In even quietly condoning these job actions, the leadership of the United Steelworkers is proving themselves shockingly oblivious to the financial challenges that our territory faces at this moment in our recovery efforts and the difficult reality faced by millions of Americans who are out of work,” deJongh said. “They are acting only on behalf of their own narrow and selfish self-interests.”
Throughout the United States, dozens of states have frozen or cut salaries, benefits and pensions for public employees; and since August 2008, over 300,000 state and city government employees have been laid off, he said.
There are almost 20,000 former government employees in Puerto Rico “who would gladly trade places with the workers who participated in this job action,” the governor said. “Unlike the Virgin Islands, many governments were unable to save those thousands of jobs. We were fortunate to stave off layoffs of our core workers and avoid the cutting of essential government services … Our government employees must recognize this fact.”
A call made after regular business hours to USW headquarters on St. Thomas for comment was answered by cleaning personnel, who recommended calling back the following day. There is no confirmation from the union that it planned a work stoppage.
However, many government employees have expressed concern and unhappiness over the government’s recent announcement that it will not be giving contracted pay increases this year—a move deJongh said was made necessary by severe revenue shortfalls due to the ongoing worldwide recession.
Because the economic and budget crisis is real and pressing, stopping work over pay raises is irresponsible, according to deJongh.
“In this time when we are all trying to do more with less, when many private-sector employees in the territory are losing jobs or benefits, when the national unemployment rate hovers just below 10 percent, when a fragile economic recovery is in its early stages, it is the height of irresponsibility to walk off a government job in protest of not getting an increase in pay. We will only get through these difficult economic times if we all accept the need for some self-sacrifice, and we all continue to put forward our best effort,” deJongh said.